HEALTH bosses have urged the North-East public to be sensible about how they use the NHS this winter - as it emerged that operations have already been cancelled in the run-up to Christmas.

Despite months of planning, and millions of extra pounds invested in the region, there are fears that services will be swamped by people who do not really need medical help.

Hospitals in the region are said to be already coming under increased pressure as health bosses appealed to people not to abuse services during the festive season.

Meanwhile, patients who have had to wait for a flu jab, because supplies ran out in the region, have been urged to contact their GP after new supplies arrived.

A number of non-urgent planned operations were cancelled at Durham's Drybur Hospital in the past few days to make way for seriously ill, mainly elderly patients.

In what might be a taste of things to come, Dryburn chief executive Bill Worth said: "We are under very severe pressure. We admitted more than 40 medical cases on Monday, which is straining us considerably."

Elsewhere in the region, bosses at South Tees Acute Hospitals said they were also under pressure.

Although not on red alert at the moment, the trust is admitting between 250 and 295 emergency medical admissions a week, with the number continuing to rise.

At Darlington Memorial Hospital, the situation was "very tight" for medical beds, according to Janet Probert, clinical manager for medicine.

Members of the multi-disciplinary winter pressures planning committee meeting at County Durham and Darlington Health Authority yesterday urged people who were not seriously ill to try to self-medicate, or talk to a high street pharmacist.

Dr Anne Sullivan, a County Durham GP who speaks for the Northern Doctors Urgent Care cooperative, said: "Our main concern is that people who really do need to see the doctor may have problems getting through. On some of the holidays last winter we got 300 calls an hour."

Dr Sullivan appealed to people with minor symptoms to ring the NHS Direct advice line (08 45 46 47) and talk to a nurse, or go to a chemist's shop and talk to the pharmacist.