Britain’s top GP has said “Protect the NHS” was an “unhelpful” message, warning of the risks of virtual consultations amid a rise in suspected cancer cases.

Professor Martin Marshall, the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said family doctors are dealing with a 30 per cent rise in referrals, such as for scans, after the Government’s messaging kept patients away from surgeries during the first wave of the pandemic.

Prof Martial said colleagues were increasingly likely to encounter patients with cancerous growths and warned of the risks of virtual consultations after face-to-face appointments fell from approximately 75 per cent to just 10 per cent at the start of the pandemic.

In July, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said that in the future all consultations should be virtual unless there was a “compelling reason” for them not to be.

But Prof Martial said on Thursday that in many cases speaking to patients over the phone or by video hindered diagnosis and accused Mr Hancock of “overplaying his hand” when it came to the benefits of technology.

Face-to-face appointments have increased since the end of the first wave, recovering to 56 per cent of all consultations in September, according to NHS figures released on Thursday. The data also showed that surgeries saw 1.5 million more same-day appointments in the month compared to September last year.

However, previous figures have indicated that the number of urgent two-week referrals – the crucial NHS pathway that should get patients suspected of having cancer to a specialist within a fortnight – was down by at least 70 per cent during the height of the pandemic.

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