The NHS continued its strong performance on waiting times in February, achieving all three 18 week referral-to-treatment measures for the second consecutive month.

Nationally, 91.2 per cent of admitted patients were treated within 18 weeks, against a target of 90 per cent. This was down 0.2 per cent on January but up from 88.7 per cent a year ago.

Performance on the non-admitted pathway performance remained consistent with the previous month and year on year with 97.1 per cent patients seen within the timescale, against a target of 95 per cent.

In total 78.5 per cent of NHS trusts were meeting the target for admitted patients and 92.8 per cent achieved that for non-admitted patients.

Just 7.4 per cent of patients were waiting more than 18 weeks, within the limit of 8 per cent brought in under the 2012-13 Operating Framework. In total, 72.2 per cent of trusts met this target in February, compared to 65.5 per cent in November 2011.

Analysis of Department of Health data by NHS Gooroo Rob Findlay shows 5,696 patients had been waiting for longer than a year in February, compared to 10,407 in November - a 45 per cent drop. However, much of this reduction is likely to be due to data cleansing, after people who should not have been on waiting lists were removed.

The latest set of figures became a political football.

Labour shadow health secretary Andy Burnham picked on the 27 per cent increase in number of patients waiting over 18 weeks on the admitted pathway from 20,662 at the time of the election in May 2010 to 26,417 in February. He claimed that under David Cameron the NHS was “heading straight back to the bad old days of the last Tory government”.

In response, health minister Simon Burns highlighted the halving of the number of patients waiting more than six months to claim claimed the figures were proof the NHS was going “from strength to strength”. He accused Labour of scaremongering.

Deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation David Stout said the performance was “no small achievement”, given the current pressures faced by the NHS.

He added: “Politicians will always argue their corner but it’s really important for the NHS that patients are given a clear picture of what is happening to waiting times.

“The number of people waiting in excess of 26 weeks, 39 weeks and 52 weeks have all continued to fall in the past six months. Furthermore, median waiting times have reduced dramatically from 14.3 weeks in August 2007 to 5.2 weeks in February 2012.

“But it is also true that some people still wait too long. The NHS will have to take a hard look at evidence where it suggests that alternative approaches to treatment could improve waiting times.”