The number of NHS operations cancelled at the last minute in English hospitals increased by almost 2,500 at the end of last year, official figures show.
The government says there are more hospital beds in the NHS
Between October to December 17,402 operations were cancelled at short notice for non-clinical reasons.
This was an increase of 2,471 on the number cancelled in the three months between July and September 2004.
But health minister John Hutton said the vast majority of patients were getting faster access to treatment.
Operations may be cancelled at the last minute if a bed is no longer going to be available, or if staff are needed elsewhere.
The Department of Health said the increase seen in October to December compared with the previous quarter was in line with seasonal trends.
The figure was a little lower than that for the same quarter in 2003, when there were 17,782 last-minute cancellations.
Bed target met
Health Minister John Hutton said: "The vast majority of NHS patients are experiencing faster access to treatment and we are increasing capacity in the NHS to further minimise the possibility of operations being cancelled."
He said that the NHS Plan had set a target of an extra 2,100 general and acute beds by 2004, which had been met, and there were now more than 137,000 available.
He added: "We are also working to separate emergency and elective capacity by setting up NHS treatment centres and working with independent sector treatment centres.
"Over the next five years we are aiming to do more than a million operations at treatment centres.
"Emergency treatment is not undertaken at treatment centres which means patients get total certainty of time and date of their operation."
But Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "Labour's target culture and bureaucracy often overrides patients' needs.
"It is unacceptable that over 17,000 operations are cancelled due to bureaucracy."
And Liberal Democrat health spokesman Paul Burstow said: "Cancelled operations are a barometer of just how stretched hospitals are.
"The fact that cancellations are higher now than when Labour came to power should be worrying government ministers."
A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association said: "Cancelled operations are a major problem within the NHS.
"Usually the reason for cancellation is a shortage of theatre staff or beds which is distressing for patients and extremely frustrating for doctors. We must not give up the effort to tackle those shortages."
She added: "The BMA is also concerned that in order to meet the four-hour A&E waiting list target inappropriate hospital admissions are being made. This would obviously lead to reduced bed capacity and elective surgery being cancelled. The BMA is looking into this."