The health secretary has predicted this winter will be as “difficult” for the health service as last, when many patients waited for long periods in accident and emergency units.

Speaking at the Foundation Trust Network conference in Liverpool yesterday, Jeremy Hunt said: “I think this winter will be as difficult [as last]. We’ve tried to do everything we can at the centre to help prepare the system.”

Winter 2012-13 saw large numbers of hospitals miss the target for 95 per cent of patients to be seen within four hours of arrival at A&E, many by a large margin. There were also many waits of 12 hours or more for beds.

Mr Hunt referred to complaints from some hospitals in recent weeks that the national £250m fund to support them in winter had been directed at those expected to struggle with performance.

“I know some people were upset we didn’t divide the money up evenly,” he said. “I felt we had to concentrate those resources where they are needed.” In past years additional winter funding has been given to all trusts.

Mr Hunt also told the conference the government was willing to support changes to services to make them sustainable.

He said: “We need a system [for reconfiguring services] that works faster.”

He indicated he believed that highlighting trusts with poor quality services – referencing the 11 where problems were detailed by the Keogh mortality review process – could help bring about major changes.

“You can more easily make the case for change where hospitals have problems,” he said. “That’s an area where we are going to see more progress.”