"THESE next few weeks will be the most difficult we have ever faced".

This is what Southampton and Hampshire's NHS leaders are warning as they urged residents to stick to Covid-19 rules as the vaccine rollout reaches a vital stage.

In an open letter to the local community, they have called for the public to "support the NHS" by staying at home.

And the warning comes as Hampshire hospitals and GP practices "are busier than ever before".

In the open letter, NHS bosses in Hampshire said: "With the development of vaccines we now know we can beat this virus, but we cannot let our guard down. These next few weeks will be the most difficult we have ever faced. The colder weather makes things all the more challenging for us. That is why we are asking for your help."

Romsey Advertiser: Derek Sandeman, chief medical executive at UHS, was one of those to sign the letterDerek Sandeman, chief medical executive at UHS, was one of those to sign the letter

Residents have been urged to stay at home, wash their hands regularly and for at least 20 seconds, wear a face covering and make sure they stay two metres apart from people.

In their letter NHS bosses added: "Covid-19 cases are rising. Local hospitals and GP practices are busier than ever before. There are huge pressures on NHS services, and we can only withstand those pressures if we all work together. NHS staff are working flat out, at the most difficult of times. Everyone – you, your family, your friends – can play a part in the effort to keep Hampshire and Isle of Wight safe and to support the NHS."

The letter has been signed by medical directors at hospitals in Southampton and Portsmouth as well as NHS leaders from across the rest of the county and the Isle of Wight.

They explained there are several NHS services available to support the public, such as 111 Online, local community pharmacies, and urgent treatment centres.

County bosses have also backed the move.

Alan Whitehead, MP for Southampton Test, said: "These leaders are absolutely right, now isn't the time to show complacency and we all need to be staying at home as much as possible to protect the NHS and save lives. I know that the majority of people are doing this and making huge sacrifices to stop the spread of the virus, but those who aren't need to listen to these leaders who know first hand how much strain is on the NHS right now."

Southampton Itchen MP Royston Smith said "there is light at the end of the tunnel".

But he added: "Don't fall at the final hurdle.  We simply must protect ourselves and others until the vaccine is fully rolled out."

The news comes as earlier this week NHS bosses revealed that four mass vaccination centres are to be launched in Hampshire over the coming weeks.

Cllr Lorna Fielker, cabinet member for health in Southampton, said: "I fully support the NHS leaders letter. We all have a role to play in making sure we minimise  our contact with people who are not in our household. Any resident in Southampton who needs help to do this should contact our COVID-19 resident helpline on 023 8083 4800 or visit the Southampton City Council website."