EMERGENCY patients were seen and treated more quickly in Scotland's hospitals during the festive holiday than in the same period last year, according to NHS data.
Last winter hospitals faced a crisis as they were swamped by people needing medical attention. More than 300 patients were stuck in accident and emergency departments for 12 hours as wards ran out of beds.
The first data available shows this Christmas and the start of 2014 have been much smoother for the Scottish health service - although some health boards are still struggling to hit emergency waiting times targets and doctors say pressure has grown in recent days.
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The improvement may reflect the extra resources pumped into emergency care by the Scottish Government and lower levels of illness in the community.
Experts have repeatedly blamed a nasty respiratory virus and an unusual surge in the winter vomiting bug norovirus for last year's crisis - although the College of Emergency Medicine had warned the Scottish Government hospitals were struggling to cope with patient numbers months before the winter hit.
During the last two weeks of 2013 and the first week of 2014 just four patients were recorded as being delayed in Scotland's A&E departments for 12 hours or more. This compares to 328 last year.
In addition, A&Es collectively hit the target of dealing with 95% of patients within four hours during the last week of the year. However, there are signs of growing pressure, with raw data for the first week of 2014 suggesting a performance of 92.5%.
John Connaghan, director of health workforce and performance for the NHS, thanked staff for their hard work ensuring patients were seen swiftly, but added that there was no room for complacency.
Mr Connaghan said: "We have had a mild winter so far. Who is to say what the rest of the winter will bring? We could have a lot of respiratory illness coming in, but we are much better prepared."
A survey of health boards by The Herald showed that while long delays in A&E were much fewer than last year, a number of departments struggled to meet the four-hour target this festive season.
NHS Tayside had one of the best performances along with NHS Fife at 98%, Dumfries and Galloway and NHS Highland also hit the target, while NHS Ayrshire and Arran achieved 93%.
However, over New Year in Lanarkshire and Forth Valley more than 10% of patients were delayed in A&E beyond four hours.
In Grampian the target was missed for more than 10% of patients during Christmas week.
Between December 30 and January 5 NHS Lothian met the target for just in excess of 90% of patients, with two experiencing 12-hour waits.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said 93% of A&E patients were seen in time over Christmas week despite high demand. The board said: "Although on some occasions some patients waited for longer than we would have liked, no patients waited over 12 hours during this week." Its figures for New Year are still being collated.
The Herald is looking closely at how well hospitals are coping this winter as part of its NHS: Time for Action campaign, which is calling for a review of capacity in hospitals and care services to ensure Scotland can cope with the growing elderly population.
Dr Jason Long, a Scottish A&E consultant and chairman of the College of Emergency Medicine in Scotland, said: "Over Christmas and New Year it felt a lot better than last year, but the last two weeks there has been an increase in through-put of patients and increased pressures. We are certainly dealing with it a lot better than last year, but we cannot rest on our laurels."