LONDON -- Health watchdogs have warned hospitals to stop fiddling A&E waiting times by forcing patients to wait in ambulances outside.
Monitor, the independent regulator of NHS Trusts, has ordered health chiefs to stop "gaming" the system amid fears lives are being put at risk.
In an edict to NHS foundation trusts, Monitor highlights claims that tens of thousands of patients are kept in ambulances to help A&E units hit a four-hour target to treat or discharge patients.
It condemns the practice, blamed for delaying ambulances answering 999 calls and jeopardising the safety of patients.
Last month, the Sunday Mirror revealed more than 103,000 patients waited longer than half an hour in an ambulance before being transferred to A&E last year than did in Labour's final year in power.
Monitor warned: "Keeping any patient who requires hospital care in an ambulance for an extended period is poor patient care and could have serious implications.
"Delaying ambulances at hospitals restricts the capacity of ambulances to reach other patients who may need urgent attention."
Labour's spokesman Andy Burnham and other groups also rounded on Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt over the attempts to fiddle waiting-time figures. Mr Burnham said: "It's extraordinary that the NHS regulator is having to warn hospitals for leaving patients in ambulances to mask the Government's chaos in A&E. "A&E isn't coping because of job cuts and now it's being felt by ambulance services People in parts of the country are being left without adequate cover as ambulances are tied up at A&E for hours on end. The sight of ambulances queuing takes us back to the bad old days of the Tory NHS."
Patients' Association chief executive Katherine Murphy said: "It's not good practice or safe for patients. This practice might be in the interests of the financial directors of trusts, but it's not good for an open and transparent NHS."
In the 12 months to April 2012, 444,158 patients were kept in ambulances for more than 30 minutes - up from 340,335 in 2010. The total covers six of England's 11 ambulance trusts which means the final figure will be much higher.