Hospitals in Berkshire Trust recorded 45 per cent fewer GP referrals during March.

NHS figures show GPs referred 101 patients to hospital for assessment, investigation or treatment by specialists at Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust in March last year.

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But that number fell to 56 during the same month this year, as Covid-19 began to take hold in the UK – a drop of 45 per cent.

It reflected the picture across England, where referrals fell by 32 per cent, from 1.18 million to 802,000.

Health leaders have warned that the NHS faces a “wave of increasing demand” as the initial coronavirus peak abates, with a drop in non-Covid related activity during the crisis storing up problems for the future.

The Royal College of GPs says the drop is due to both a fall in patients making appointments and hospitals not accepting referrals for some non-urgent conditions to free up beds and resources.

But the British Medical Association says the deferral of treatment risks conditions worsening and requiring more acute care in future, which is likely to "result in a wave of increasing demand once the current Covid situation eases".

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More than half of GPs thought the prioritisation of Covid-19 patients was negatively impacting the care of others, according to a BMA survey.

Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair, said: "In our recent survey, the impact on long-term patient clinical demand was the one issue that GPs said they were most concerned about related to the current pandemic.

“The BMA is urging the Government and NHS England to set out a credible and realistic plan of how it intends to continue to meet the current demand of Covid-19, while resuming services for patients who so desperately need care for unrelated, but often painful and distressing, conditions.”

Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the RCGP, said it was important patients seek help, as earlier diagnosis can improve outcomes for some serious conditions such as cancer.

He said: “GPs are still making urgent referrals, when appropriate, throughout the pandemic, so patients should not be deterred from seeking medical attention over fears of contracting coronavirus or burdening NHS services."

The NHS England figures also show that zero referred patients were seen by specialists at Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust during March – 100 per cent fewer than in March 2019.

But as lockdown measures are eased, the RCGP says the number of patients making doctor’s appointments is beginning to rise again – which will also mean a rise in referrals.

An NHS spokeswoman said hospitals had received guidance to allow them to increase the number of tests and treatments they carry out in a safe way while still retaining extra capacity to treat future coronavirus patients.

She added: “Our message to anyone worried about symptoms is: help us help you, and seek help through your GP as you always would.”