The UK's leading doctor has warned that family GP services are "skating on thin ice" as the NHS braces itself for yet another winter crisis.
Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said that patients in some areas of the country are already waiting up to three weeks to see a doctor and she fears that primary care could be stretched beyond breaking point as temperatures drop further.
She highlighted the fact that seasonal pressures on the NHS did not just affect hospital services despite the fact that these received more media attention.
In fact, the added strain on GP services was worse because they see more patients than hospitals to begin with, she claimed.
She said: ""I am profoundly concerned about how general practice will cope over the winter. It's not just A&E that sees peaks in workload. Every peak that you see in A&E is magnified in primary care just through the scale.
"As a service that is already skating on thin ice – a service that is stretched incredibly thinly – something has to give."
She praised the "professionalism, resilience and goodwill" of her fellow professionals and said that it was only these attributes that kept the service running. She fears that non-urgent illnesses will become urgent if those afflicted are having to wait for three to four weeks to see a doctor.
She said: "If you're dealing with people who are acutely sick on the day because people need help, then chronic disease management will disappear. Chronic disease management is the most phenomenal success story of the NHS – every day tens of thousands of people do not die who would have died 20 to 30 years ago because we are quietly saving them from having heart attacks, we are saving them from having strokes, we are saving them from the complications of diabetes.
"My worry, the big fear, is that if GPs and other healthcare professionals working in the community rein back on preventative care and chronic disease management because we are too busy firefighting the urgent issues, the knock-on consequences could take years to manifest but they will be very serious."