An analysis from the Nuffield Trust and the BBC shows that GP workforce figures are falling due to a series of failures and accidents whose effects are likely to continue.

Figures show that across the UK, the number of GPs relative to the size of the population has fallen in a sustained way for the first time since the 1960s.

The fall in the number of GPs has been particularly marked in certain regions of England such as North West London and the East of England. These regions also have the lowest total number of GPs per 100,000 people, whereas Scotland has the highest.

It states that the reasons behind the fall include insufficient numbers previously being trained and going on to join the NHS; failure to recruit enough from abroad; and more practitioners leaving for early retirement.

Worryingly, demographic changes over time – such as an ageing population – may mean that the ratio of GPs to patients would need to actually rise to keep up with need.

The BMA said that its members are under intense pressure to meet rising demand in the NHS, and in many cases, the workload has become unmanageable, leading them to reduce hours or retire.

It added that the damaging impact of changes to tax allowances have had those in the NHS pension scheme has to recognised - contributing to two-thirds of GPs taking early retirement; compared to one third in 2012.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: "These figures are disheartening but will be unsurprising for GPs – and their patients - across the country who are feeling the impact of relentless workforce pressures in general practice on a daily basis.

"There is some excellent work ongoing to boost recruitment into general practice and as a result we have more GPs in training that ever before. But GPs cannot be trained overnight, and whilst we wait for the next generation of family doctors to enter the workforce, existing GPs and our teams are struggling to manage escalating workloads without enough time or the resources to deal with them.

"Demand for GP services is escalating both in terms of volume and complexity – and when this is compounded by falling GP numbers, it creates a perfect storm that is leading to GPs becoming stressed and burning out, and in many cases leaving NHS general practice far earlier than they might otherwise have done."

She said that the college was optimistic about the future of general practice because of the financial commitment to primary and community care in the NHS long-term plan in England; the new five-year GP contract which promises that money will get to the front line; and pledges to ensure greater investment in technology are all part of a jigsaw that should help keep the NHS sustainable for the future.

But she added that GP numbers, which as this research shows are still falling, cannot be ignored.