People in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly could face a longer wait to see their doctor ​as patient numbers continue to rise amid a drop in GPs.

The Royal College of GPs has warned that “valuable GP time must be spent on the frontline” during the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, with patient numbers expected to surge over the coming weeks.

NHS England data reveals that 585,275 patients were registered at GP practices in the NHS Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group area on March 1.

​The number has increased by 748 since the start of the year, when there were 584,527 patients spread between 380 GPs, according to workforce figures taken a day earlier.

But while the number of patients continues to rise each month, different NHS figures show the number of full-time equivalent GPs in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is falling – over the course of 2019, 11 fewer GPs took on 5,205 more patients.

That means the average GP now has around 1,540 patients, compared to 1,482 at the start of last year.

The figures include partners, registrars and salaried GPs as well as locum and retained GPs, but not other practice staff.

Across England, 60.4 million patients were registered at GP practices at the start of March.

But despite a rise in FTE GPs in the country, the number who were fully qualified fell to 28,319 in December last year – 277 fewer than in December 2018.

The King's Fund says this is partly down to more GPs choosing to spend only part of their week in frontline clinical practice.

Beccy Baird, senior fellow at The King’s Fund, said: "Demand for GP services has been rising faster than capacity. The overall number of full-time equivalent GPs keeps falling and that creates a vicious cycle of increased pressure on primary care services.

"Increasing the number of GPs, pharmacists and other primary care professionals is critical.

"The coronavirus will place further strain on already stretched services, and patients and the public can help.”

The Care Quality Commission – the country's health watchdog – has announced that it will temporarily suspend inspections of GP surgeries during the Covid-19 outbreak to ensure staff can dedicate their time to frontline care.

Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Even in the face of the outbreak, primary care teams are still seeing more than one million non-coronavirus related patients a day.

"Most patients are, understandably, seeking advice and reassurance from their GPs about Covid-19 during routine appointments and this is already having an impact on GPs’ time.

“New primary care working arrangements, such as telephone triage and video consultations, will help, but remote consultations will not suit every patient.

“It’s inevitable that pressures and patient numbers will grow over the next coming week, and possibly months, as the situation develops.

“GPs will always do their best for patients but there are limits beyond which we can no longer guarantee safe care.

“We need to ensure that valuable GP time is spent on the frontline, and so the temporary halt of routine inspections by the CQC is a very welcome measure."