Hospital beds in Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust were 95 per cent full in the week leading up to the New Year, well above the recommended safe limit of 85 per cent.

Of 520 total available beds, 493 were in use on average between Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, according to the NHS' daily Winter Situation Reports.

The figures show 15 of these were "escalation beds", temporary beds set up in periods of intense pressure. These are sometimes placed in areas not usually used for hospital patients, such as gyms or day care centres.

In hospitals where more than 85 per cent of beds are occupied, there is a greater risk of patients receiving inadequate care, being placed on an inappropriate ward for their condition, or contracting superbugs such as MRSA, according to the British Medical Association.

While the Trust was operating close to capacity, 22 per cent of beds were taken by patients who had been there for three weeks or longer, while 48 per cent of patients had been in hospital for longer than a week.

Bed blocking, where a patient is well enough to be discharged but unable to leave because the next stage of their care has not been organised, has contributed significantly to A&E delays in recent years.

A small number of additional "critical" beds are available to patients with serious or life-threatening conditions. There were 10 critical beds available in the last week, and 86 per cent of these were occupied.

The winter is always the busiest time of year for the NHS, but Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust is under greater pressure than last year, according to NHS figures. In the same week in December 2016, 81 per cent of beds were occupied, 14 percentage points lower than current rates.

Earlier this month, Darent Valley Hospital issued a plea online for patients to use other services because of high demand at the A&E department.

Responding to the crisis, the NHS has instructed hospitals to delay non-urgent treatment such as joint operations and cataract surgery to relieve pressure on accident and emergency departments.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents which represents the health service's acute, ambulance, community and mental health services, said: "The trust CEOs we have spoken to and the social media posts we have seen suggest that the NHS is currently under very significant pressure."

"Some are describing it as the most difficult set of urgent and emergency care pressures they have experienced."