Health officials have issued a desperate plea to the public to keep away from Accident & Emergency departments amid fears that units are about to be deluged.
Urging people to only turn to casualty if truly necessary, senior doctors asked "the young and fit" to stand back to ensure the most vulnerable can receive help.
The week after Christmas is traditionally a time of peak demand for the NHS and medics are fearful that overloaded services will struggle to cope.
Last winter at least 14 hospitals declared major incidents, with 44,000 excess deaths – the highest figure since the millennium.
A&E performance has deteriorated sharply in the last two months, according to figures collected by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine Photo: ALAMY
Senior doctors fear an even worse scenario this year, with record numbers of elderly people already stuck in hospital long before winter began, and widespread shortages of nurses.
Health officials have been accused of attempting to "spin their way out of crisis" after stopping publication of key weekly data tracking A&E performance, and ordering hospitals not to declare major incidents if winter pressures overwhelm them.
Official statistics for October show record levels of "bed blocking" across the NHS, while more recent figures compiled by senior doctors suggest A&E waiting times are deteriorating rapidly.
"A&E experiences a surge in the days following Christmas and the New Year. Younger, fitter people can help our hardworking NHS doctors and nurses by only attending if it’s absolutely necessary"
Professor Keith Willett, national clinical director for acute careRead more