ATTENDANCES at Scotland’s hospital emergency departments have fallen by almost 60 per cent since the start of the coronavirus epidemic.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman thanked the public and health and social care staff after new official statistics showed the numbers falling to a record low.

Besides relieving pressure on wards, the reductions also saw a rise in the number of people being treated on time, with 92.2% seen within the four hour target last week.

Attendances in 2020 were roughly the same as those in 2019 until the start of March.

However, in a more worrying trend, delayed discharges were up in February, as people were stuck in hospital despite being well enough to leave.

For the week beginning March 8 this year, A&E attendances were 26,720 compared to 26,752 for the week beginning March 10 in 2019.

However the numbers have fallen sharply since, as the public has gone into lockdown and stopped non-essential travel and activities.

Attendances were 23,981 for the week beginning March 15, then 16,425 for the week beginning March 22, and just 11,020 for the week beginning March 29.

The March 29 figure represents a 59.4% drop on the equivalent week in 2019.

Last week, only 64 patients spent more than 8 hours in an A&E department, and only 10 patients spent more than 12 hours.

Ms Freeman said: “The number of attendances to A&E this week was the lowest on record since weekly reporting began with 92.2% of people being seen within four hours.

“I would like to thank members of the public for continuing to listen to advice and only going to A&E if illnesses are immediate or life threatening. This is helping to free-up vital resources to allow NHS staff to be redeployed to support the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I would also like to again pay tribute to Scotland’s health and social care staff for their continued hard work and dedication – you are providing an exceptional level of care during these extraordinary times and each and every one of you has my very grateful thanks.

“We are doing all we can to support you - working with health boards and partnerships to ensure robust plans are in place to strengthen capacity and minimise the impact of COVID-19 across the health system.”

Other figures showed 46,875 bed days lost to delayed discharges last month.

The average number of beds occupied per day was 1,616, up 11% compared with the average daily number in February 2019, and up 5% compared to January 2020.

A key factor is a lack of community care packages for the elderly, a problem which could be exacerbated by care services being cut back because of coronavirus.