GPs facing the "hardest winter" of their careers say they are working hard to provide as much access to services as possible.

Dr Amanda Riley, clinical director of Darlington's Primary Care Network, said every practice in the town has remained open during the pandemic.

She added that receptionists were facing a "large amount" of abuse on the phone and were "exhausted" after months of high intensity working.

She issued a statement following a number of negative comments made following a Northern Echo article about online access to services, with complaints made about difficulties in getting appointments.

People are being encouraged, when possible, to make use of online consultation forms.

Dr Riley said: "As we face the hardest winter of our careers, we are now also planning a Covid vaccination programme.

"We will do this with our most vulnerable patients in mind.

"We are sorry that many patients have not had the access to GPs and GP practices that they are used to, we are working so hard to maintain as much access as we possibly can.

"Please remember that every member of staff in a GP surgery is a person, with a family, struggling with many of the same issues our patients are. They are working incredibly hard and I am proud of very one of them. We are truly all doing our best."

She added: "GP receptionists are facing a large amount of abuse over the phone. They are not trying to act as a barrier for patients, they truly want to help. Their job is incredibly difficult and many of them are exhausted after months of high intensity working."

GP surgeries have remained open throughout the pandemic, with face-to-face appointments available where clinically necessary, she added.

The NHS has instructed GPs to review patients over the phone or online before any face-to-face appointments, and says many conditions can be safely managed over the phone, video or online.

Dr Riley said GPs wanted to return to seeing patients face-to-face as soon as possible but added that they would continue to use the new technology where appropriate as some patients find it easier.

The primary care network has launched a project with Healthwatch Darlington to get a better understanding of how people are digitally excluded from accessing services.

The organisation, which works to improve health services in the town, wants to speak to patients, carers and service users to explore how new ways of working could make it harder for some people to get the medical care.

Chief executive Michelle Thompson said: “It is extremely important we understand the needs of residents when accessing health and care services, and none more so at this difficult time. The covid-19 pandemic has meant that our local GP practices have had to adapt to a new way of working to ensure they keep patients and themselves safe.

"Online and telephone consultations have worked well for many but we know that it has been a challenge for others.

"If you or anyone you know would like to share your experience when accessing GP services in Darlington, please do contact us so we can help the Primary Care Network understand your needs when contacting your GP now and in the future.”

To find out more call 01325 380145 or email info@healthwatchdarlington.co.uk.