What Rishi Sunak isn’t saying about his plan to save the NHS

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reacts as he has his blood pressure checked by pharmacist Peter Baillie, during a visit to a GP surgery and pharmacy in Weston, southern England on May 9, 2023. Sunak's government has announced that more pharmacists will now be able to prescribe medication previously given by doctors, to try to relieve pressure on the health service. (Photo by Ben Birchall / POOL / AFP) (Photo by BEN BIRCHALL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak has said patients will now be able to get some prescription drugs without seeing a GP. (Getty Images)

With Rishi Sunak still in recovery after a devastating set of local election results and NHS waiting times at record high, the prime minister has announced a new policy to help reinvigorate the NHS.

The under-pressure prime minister is, it appears, pinning his hopes on pharmacists to help get the health service moving again.

We find out whether his big idea stacks up.

What’s the plan? As so many GPs surgeries are struggling to offer their patients a same-day appointment, the government wants to ease the burden on family doctors by giving pharmacists more power to treat patients.

How will that help? Rishi Sunak claims the plan will release 15 million GP appointments over the next two years for those needing help with more serious health issues, by granting pharmacists the responsibility for common, easy-to-treat illnesses.

That sounds great! It would certainly make life a little easier for patients, who would be able to treat infections such as shingles or uncomplicated urinary tract infections by just popping into the local chemist. And no more waiting to see a doctor or nurse when you need another prescription for the oral contraceptive pill.

Is there anything else they will help with? From this winter, pharmacists will also have the right to prescribe medications for ear infections, sore throats, sinusitis, impetigo and infected insect bites.

What about medical check ups? It’s already possible to get your blood pressure reviewed at the pharmacy, but the government plan includes an expansion of this service so 2.5 million people a year have their numbers checked out. It will also include self-referral to other services such as physio and podiatry without the GP signing it off.

OK…so what’s the catch? Finding a pharmacist to treat you won’t be quite as easy as the prime minister is making out. High street pharmacists are closing at a record rate, with 400 shutting their doors in 2019/20 and more following suit every year.

That’s worrying. What’s going on? Staff blame rising running costs including energy bills, staff shortages and cuts to government funding for their services - even though patient demand is rising. According to data from the NHS Business Services Authority there are now only 11,026 community chemists in England - the lowest number since 2015.

But can’t I manage all my prescriptions online now, anyway? Online pharmacies can’t replace face-to-face contact. Even those running them say the loss of community pharmacies is catastrophic. “Before any decisions can be made as to whether there should be funding for online pharmacies, a pilot scheme would need to be run to see if it is viable,” Abbas Khanani, director of Chemist Click, told Yahoo News. “The focus should be aimed at community pharmacies, we cannot have any more of them closing down.”

Are there any other concerns? In recent years, doctors have been working hard to avoid over-prescribing antibiotics where they may not be needed. Some medics worry that allowing easier prescription of antibiotics to treat these common illnesses will worsen the problem of antibiotic resistance because more people will end up taking them unnecessarily.

That sounds bad. It is, potentially. A February article in Pharmaceutical Journal argued for “point of care” testing to be introduced before any antibiotic is prescribed - something pharmacists don’t have the capacity to offer. When the plan was first mooted last year, the British Medical Association - the professional body that represents doctors - said the plan would “put patient safety in jeopardy”.

What are experts saying now? They are concerned. Dr Leonid Chindelevitch, lecturer in infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College London told Yahoo News that “transferring some of the responsibility of prescribing medicines such as antibiotics for common conditions to pharmacists runs the risk of exacerbating the ongoing antimicrobial resistance crisis that is already claiming over a million lives worldwide and is likely to get worse if no drastic action is taken”.

But it has to be good for the NHS regardless, right?. Not quite. Experts fear that the plan, while welcomed by patients, is just a distraction from the real problem - the lack of doctors in the UK. “Without swift action to fund and deliver a huge increase in medical training places through expanded medical school provision, pressures on the NHS will persist and worsen in the years to come,” said Professor Juliet Wright, head of the University of Surrey’s medical school.