A report has revealed that NHS waiting times are at their highest level for three years as government cutbacks begin to take hold.
Nearly 15% of hospital inpatients who had treatment in February had been waiting for more than 18 weeks, the report from health charity the King's Fund revealed.
The charity said that waiting times had been on the rise steadily since the 18-week target was relaxed by ministers last June.
Professor John Appleby, chief economist at The King's Fund, warned that a "vague commitment" for waiting times had now replaced the specific target.
He said: "With hospital waiting times rising, the NHS faces a considerable challenge in maintaining performance as the financial squeeze begins to bite.
"The trouble is it's hard to see what the mechanisms are to keep that target low. I think the issue is how far they will continue to rise and at what point does the public start to notice."
The figures show waiting times in accident and emergency departments are also steadily climbing with the proportion of patients waiting more than four hours increasing.
Although this percentage tends to be larger in the third quarter of each year, the latest peak is the highest since 2004/5.
The King's Fund said a panel of 26 NHS finance directors were questioned at a time of tightening budgets within the NHS to find £20 billion in productivity improvements by 2015.
Researchers also analysed data published by the Department of Health.
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