The number of flu patients in hospital in England has fallen for the third week in a row, suggesting the peak of this season’s outbreak may have passed.

An average of 1,837 people with flu were in hospital each day last week, including 97 in critical care beds, NHS data shows.

The total is down 17% from 2,208 the previous week.

It is also down just over a quarter (26%) from the 2,478 in the week to February 4, which was the highest number so far this winter.

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Flu cases in hospitals in England this year look to have peaked at a lower level than last year, when the number topped 5,000 in what was the worst flu season for a decade.

The figures for patients with other seasonal viruses are also continuing to fall.

An average of 469 adult beds were filled last week by people with diarrhoea and vomiting or norovirus-like symptoms, down 7% from 505 the previous week and the fourth weekly drop in a row since a peak of 688 in late January.

In addition, an average of 2,276 people who had tested positive for Covid-19 were in hospital last week, down week-on-week from 2,719.

Covid-19 patient numbers this winter look to have peaked at 4,245 in early January – some way below last winter, when they topped 9,000.

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Rory Deighton, acute network director at the NHS Confederation, the membership organisation for the healthcare system, warned that while the data suggests the winter peak “may now have passed”, hospitals remain under pressure and “A&Es have been incredibly busy, with care having to be provided through surge beds and in corridors”.

He added: “This must not become the new normal – not only is it not good for patients but it leaves hard-pressed staff frustrated they cannot provide the best care possible.

“Despite high demand, ambulance handovers have fallen, testimony to the hard work and planning of ambulance and hospital trusts and careful sharing of risk across both parts of the emergency care system.”

Just over a quarter (27%) of people arriving by ambulance at hospitals in England last week had to wait more than half-an-hour to be handed over to A&E teams.

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This is down from three in 10 (30%) in the previous week and is the lowest level since early January.

Some 10% of ambulance patients had to wait more than an hour to be handed over last week, down from 12% the previous week – again, the lowest since early January.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England national medical director, said: “Thanks to the work of NHS teams continuing to build on the work of our urgent and emergency care recovery plan and early winter planning, today’s data shows significant improvements in ambulance handover times, despite increased demand, with measures helping safeguard our services by providing more beds compared to the same time last year, while same-day emergency care units are helping keep people out of A&E.

“Hardworking NHS staff are still facing significant pressure from winter viruses, while also facing higher demand for emergency care and constrained bed capacity, alongside further industrial action.”