Frontline doctors are so overworked that they are missing vital signs of illness that could affect patients’ chances of survival, says one of Britain’s most senior doctors.

Sir Richard Thompson, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, said hospital doctors are running around “like a scalded cat” as they try and look after up to 70 elderly patients at a time. The recommended maximum number of patients for a doctor is 20, according to the Guardian daily.

"You try standing on your feet for seven hours trying to be on the ball, thinking of the various complications, being nice to patients, for seven hours,” said Thompson. “It's absolutely destructive. Not everyone has 70, but most people are looking after well over 20.”

Thompson, whose college represents most of the UK's 30,000 hospital doctors, except those in Scotland, warned that increasing pressure leads to doctors being unable to devote the ideal minimum of 15 minutes with each patient. Under constant “stress and strain”, doctors end up spending as little as five minutes with some patients. When that happens, says Sir Richard, "yes, you miss things".

He accused the government of cutting the NHS budget despite “weasley words” from ministers. "The NHS is under-doctored, under-nursed, under-bedded and under-funded,” he said. “There are too few doctors to do the increasingly large job to a high standard, and safely, and compassionately."

He said the NHS needs “billions” of pounds more each year to function properly.