THE health service is on a knife edge" and getting worse with the lives of patients being put at risk as staff are being overworked and stretched too far.

That is the warning from NHS workers in Brighton as they join 20,000 others for a mass demonstration today (sat) amid growing concerns about the future of the service and a cap on using "locum" agency staff.

Doctors, consultants, nurses, healthcare assistants and other staff will be joined by supporters and members of the public to spell out their concerns.

Today’s rally is being supported by Royal Sussex County Hospital accident and emergency consultant Rob Galloway, who has been invited to speak at the event.

He said: “The NHS is already on a knife edge. But that situation has just become a lot more precarious because of what might be about to happen to our junior doctors."

The Let's Save the NHS rally and protest march stems from Government plans to impose a new seven day contract on doctors, ranging from junior to consultant level, next year.

It is part of moves to create a “seven-day” NHS service across the country.

But doctors said the NHS already provides a week long service and changing working conditions will only encourage young doctors to leave the NHS or work abroad.

So Mr Galloway said the plans by health secretary Jeremy Hunt have made him “the single best recruitment consultant for Australia’s health system” because thousands are now looking to work outside the UK.

“Junior doctors are the backbone of hospitals both at night and weekends, especially in A&E.

“With a loss of the skills of these doctors, the future viability of the NHS is at risk.

“We’re already struggling to recruit enough doctors in A&E and as an A&E consultant I’m scared of what may happen come August 2016 when our current cohort of junior doctors finishes their training posts and we can’t replace them.”

NHS workers fear the Government plans will put increased pressure on already overstretched facilities, which are already struggling with a shortage of doctors and nursing staff.

The Government’s recent announcement that it was putting a cap on the amount hospitals can spend on agency doctors and nurses to provide cover is also expected to cause problems this winter and has sparked concerns over patient safety.

Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals and Western Sussex Hospitals NHS trusts both recruited dozens of workers from the Philippines to help with the winter pressures but red tape has led to a delay in them starting.

The Government has just announced it is temporarily adding nurses to its shortage occupation list, which will now speed up the process.

However it is unlikely staff will be ready to start until January at the earliest.

Deborah Miarkowska, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton's school of health sciences, said: "It is very evident from nursing, midwifery and medical colleagues that the NHS is under extreme pressures.

"The ability to perform roles effectively as health care professionals where role expectations and patient needs are ever increasing coupled with diminished NHS funding, makes for a very challenging time for all front-line NHS staff."

Katrina Miller from the Sussex Defend the NHS campaign group, said: “Doctors in our hospitals are already working all hours God gives them and there’s a massive safety issue here - patient safety obviously.

“Who wants to be treated by an exhausted doctor who’s been on shift for 12 hours?

“And then the health of doctors themselves who are over-worked and completely stressed because they care about their patients but don’t have time to do a job as they want to.

“Crises in the NHS are happening more and more frequently now and it’s all part of this government’s drive to de-stabilise our NHS in preparation for selling it, hospital by hospital, service by service to profit-driven health corporations when there’s mounting evidence where private providers take over a contract, they fail to provide an adequate service.”

Brighton and Sussex and East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust are also struggling financially and is forecasting a deficit for the end of the financial year.