Could pharmacies ease pressure on GPs? Concern over government's prescriptions plan

The government has announced a second measure aimed at ending the '8am scramble', but there is concern it could leave already thin-stretched pharmacists picking up the slack

A new government plan could see pharmacists able to hand out a range of prescription medications without sign-off from a GP, in a bid to free up millions of doctor's appointments.

Under the plan, released on Tuesday (9 May), patients would be able to obtain prescription medicines for seven common ailments - including earaches, sore throats, and urinary tract infections - as well as oral contraception directly from pharmacies, without seeing a GP first.

The number of people able to access blood pressure checks in pharmacies would more than double to 2.5 million a year, while self-referrals will also increase for access to services like physiotherapy, hearing tests, and podiatry without needing to see a GP first.

It was also hoped that almost half-a-million women would no longer need to speak to a nurse or GP to get oral contraception, nor would people suffering sinusitis, infected insect bites, impetigo, or shingles.

MPs hope to introduce the new measures in time for winter, after a consultation period with the pharmacy industry. Prime MinisterRishi Sunak said the plan could free up as many as 15 million slots, which he hoped would help end the “all-too stressful wait” for a doctor's appointment.

“I am getting on with delivering on my five priorities and transforming primary care is the next part of this government’s promise to cut NHS waiting lists,” he said. “I know how frustrating it is to be stuck on hold to your GP practice when you or a family member desperately need an appointment for a common illness."

Sunak vowed to "end the 8am rush", and expand the services offered by pharmacies, meaning patients could get their medication quickly and easily.

Patients will be able to obtain prescription medicines and oral contraception directly from pharmacies under a blueprint to ease the pressure on GP appointments. (Photo: Julien Behal/PA Wire)Patients will be able to obtain prescription medicines and oral contraception directly from pharmacies under a blueprint to ease the pressure on GP appointments. (Photo: Julien Behal/PA Wire)
Patients will be able to obtain prescription medicines and oral contraception directly from pharmacies under a blueprint to ease the pressure on GP appointments. (Photo: Julien Behal/PA Wire)

It comes just a day after industry groups warned more pharmacies would close, unless ministers provide more funding to the “struggling” sector. A BBC analysis on Monday (8 May) revealed the number of community chemists in England had fallen by 160 over the last two years to 11,026 - according to data from NHS Business Services Authority - the lowest number since 2015.

Pharmacists told the BBC rising costs, lack of staff, and reduced financial support from the government were to blame, even as patient numbers continued to rise.

But Sunak said the government would also announce plans on Tuesday to make sure pharmacies had the support they needed to help patients, and ease pressure on primary care. “I know how important and brilliant local pharmacists are up and down the country. We want to back them.

“I think all of us know our local pharmacists, we know what a great job they do, and me and the government want to support them to do even more to help us," he added.

However, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: Sunak was "completely out of touch with the problems facing patients and the NHS". He continued: "He has no plan to address the shortage of GPs, or to reverse the cut in the number of doctors trained every year. The Conservatives’ announcement is merely tinkering at edges, in contrast to the fundamental reform the NHS needs and Labour is offering.”

The King’s Fund health think tank has also warned some pharmacies wound not be able to offer the services, because they may not have access to diagnostic tools. Senior fellow Beccy Baird said that “not all pharmacies will be able to offer these services and it will be really frustrating for patients to be bumped from pillar to post, only to end up back at the GP”.

She added: “Whilst any improvements to make it easier for people to access their local practices are welcome, to make the kinds of system changes needed to reform general practice, it is essential that, over the long term, primary care is as much of a priority as reducing the hospital backlog."

Lib Dem Health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper added: “Accessing faster care is critical for patients but ministers just don’t seem to grasp the scale of the problem... Without a serious plan to recruit the pharmacists and GPs that our NHS needs, this could be yet another Conservative health pledge not worth the paper it’s written on.”

Some in the medical field supported the measures. Thorrun Govind, chairwoman of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in England, said the plans would be a “real game-changer” for patients, while NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said the “ambitious package” could help transform how care is provided within the health service.

“This blueprint will help us to free up millions of appointments for those who need them most, as well as supporting staff so that they can do less admin and spend more time with patients,” she said.

The proposals, backed by £645 million of spending over two years, came on top of measures to make it easier to get GP appointments with online booking tools. Practices would be handed £240 million this year, to “embrace the latest technology” and upgrade old phone and online booking systems.