AS we approach the winter months, NHS staff are already fearing the worst.

Already under huge strain with record numbers of patients attending hospitals across the North-East and Cumbria, the warning signs that it will be another busier than usual season have already been flashing.

In a week when Northumberland Clinical Commission Group (CCG) discovered through a patient impact report that two patients died last year after delays by the medical services, NHS organisations across the North-East admitted emergency departments at its hospitals were already at breaking point.

On October 1 alone, more than 4,500 people attended emergency departments across the region.

NHS organisations throughout the area joined together to issue a joint stark warning to people to use its services properly after they declared a large proportion of these patients should have been seen elsewhere or for illnesses like flu which could be managed or avoided through vaccination or self-care.

Dr Stewart Findlay, chief officer for the five CCGs across Durham and Tees Valley, issued a strong message to North-East people last week.

He said: “We need to be honest with people about the consequences that their decisions lead to.

“For instance, not getting your flu jab will almost certainly mean more pressure on our nurses and doctors. Even if you never get sick, you can still carry it and infect others.

“Equally, attending emergency departments when you don’t need it inevitably means a longer wait for someone else, with potentially dire results.

“To continue to cope, the NHS needs a hand from the general public. With that help, we can ensure that everyone gets the care they need when they need it.”

As a result in the spike of use, the NHS wanted to remind people of the recommended guidelines for treatment.

Emergency departments and 999 calls should only be used if patients were in immediate care of critical or life-saving care.

For less serious injuries, there were a wealth of other NHS services available. Many ailments could be treated using over the counter medicines and expert advice from a pharmacist, GPs could deal with a range of conditions, while urgent care centres, such as those available at Hexham General Hospital, offered care for a broad range of problems, often with much shorter waiting times.

If people were unsure whether they needed to visit an emergency department, they were urged to phone the non-emergency number of 111 for advice.

Hospitals across the country struggle to cope with user numbers during the winter months, often resulting in visitor restrictions.

Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, which runs hospitals in Hexham and Haltwhistle, introduced partial visitor restrictions in 2018 in response to rising rates of norovirus, known as the winter vomiting bug, while restricted all visitors to certain wards in the winter of 2017.

To prevent repeat restrictions, NHS leaders were also urging people who may at risk from flu to take up the offer of a free flu jab as soon as possible to avoid putting other people, including NHS staff, at risk.

Those eligible for free vaccinations, particularly those people aged 65 and over and pregnant women, are asked to contact their GP practice to sort the jab.