NEW data released by the NHS has highlighted the "unprecedented demand" faced by Hampshire GPs struggling to cope with problems caused by the pandemic.

Issues include a shortage of family doctors, rising numbers of people with mental health problems, and the need to monitor the condition of patients on hospital waiting lists.

GPs are also working their way through a huge backlog of routine appointments that have built up during the Covid crisis.

Last month the number of appointments offered in Hampshire was up 16.4% on July 2019 compared with the regional average of 11.8%. The number of emails, phone calls and video appointments soared by 132% over the same period.

Earlier this month Waterfront and Solent Surgery at Hythe was criticised after posting online about the demands faced by staff.

The surgery revealed that on August 6 it received 909 calls by 8.18am, which it described as a "usual morning" in general practice.

Patients also took to social media, accusing it making them feel they were an inconvenience, but the surgery said staff were working as hard as they could.

Now the Wessex Local Medical Committees (LMC), which represents GPs in Hampshire and other parts of the south, is urging patients to be more understanding.

Dr Gareth Bryant, acting chief executive, said: "GP practices have faced unprecedented demand, partly due to delivering the Covid vaccination programme and supporting patients who are ill with coronavirus and also because they are being affected by the backlog elsewhere in the NHS.

“The government has promised that more GPs will be recruited but it’s not happening at the speed or the levels we need."

Royston Smith, Tory MP for Southampton Itchen, added: "The increase in appointment requests, coupled with a backlog during the pandemic, has made this situation far more challenging.

"GPs are having to work exceptionally hard treating patients in these unprecedented times.

"I understand that online appointments are no substitute for face-to-face. However, these new technologies, in addition to physical appointments, are ensuring that everyone can be seen as quickly as possible.”

Dr Alan Whitehead, Labour MP for Southampton Test, said pre-pandemic problems had grown worse over the past 18 months.

He added: "The Conservatives have chronically underfunded the NHS for the last decade and it's no surprise that they haven't been able to deliver on their promise of more GPs to help the situation."

One of the issues faced by family doctors is the need to prevent their surgeries from becoming Covid infection hubs.

Dr Andy Purbrick, the LMC's medical director, added: "GPs have responded extremely well to the challenges of the pandemic and shown themselves to be resilient, adaptable and innovative in the way they protect both patients and staff.

"They should be praised for the ways in which they have adjusted, including introducing additional technology and communication channels.

"However the appointment can often take longer online and result in someone being asked to come in and see their GP, duplicating the time involved.

“GPs much prefer to see people face to face, recognising that many ailments cannot be effectively picked up over a phone call or email.

"However, their priority is to keep everyone safe and for many people, online technology or phone call is a more effective way of communicating when it comes to issues that are less serious.”

The British Medical Association, which represents GPs, said the NHS was facing some of the most severe pressures in its 70-year history.

It added: "GP surgeries across the country are experiencing significant and growing strain with rising demand, practices struggling to recruit staff, and patients having to wait longer for appointments.

"Alongside these long-term trends GP practices have been at the forefront of the NHS’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

"The overall number of FTE (full-time equivalent) GPs has seen little growth since 2015, with the number of GP partners significantly reducing in that time.

"The number of patients per practice is 22% higher than it was in 2015, but the GP workforce has not grown with this demand.

"There are now just 0.46 fully-qualified GPs per 1,000 patients in England - down from 0.52 in 2015."