Scotland's health service is coping much better with winter pressures after a sharp drop in the number of patients spending 12 or more hours in accident and emergency departments, according to Health Secretary Alex Neil.

Just 42 patients had to wait this long in A&E in December 2013, compared to 323 in the same month of the previous year, a drop of 87%, recent figures show.

A 69% fall was recorded in the number of patients spending more than eight hours in A&E, with this dropping from 1555 to 480 over the same period.

Loading article content

In the final month of 2013 93.5% of people at accident and emergency units were seen and treated within the four-hour target.

Other statistics showed flu rates are at the expected level for this time of year, with 21.5 GP consultations per 100,000 people, and that just two hospital wards were closed due to norovirus last Monday, compared to 11 a year ago.

Mr Neil, who insisted there was no room for complacency, said: "Last year we saw increased pressures on our hospitals in the peak of winter, ­including an early start to the norovirus season, an increase in respiratory illnesses, and a rise in the number of people attending A&E in the peak of winter.

"Following last winter we recognised that improvements needed to be made, and that is why we introduced our three-year £50 million emergency care action plan, to help improve emergency care across Scotland."

He said health boards across ­Scotland were given £9m to support winter planning, with NHS chiefs putting in place "a number of new measures to ensure we could manage the added strain that winter can bring".

Dr Liz Millar, consultant geriatrician for NHS Forth Valley, said: "Staying in hospital a long time can lead to older people losing their confidence and mobility and we know that most older people want to return to their own home as soon as possible.

"By providing rapid access to a wide range of specialist care, treatment and support we can streamline their care, improve their experience and help them to return home to live as independent a life as they can."