Pharmacies to be able to prescribe medication under plans to free up GP appointments

Patients will be able to receive prescription medicines and oral contraception without seeing a GP under new plans to ease the strain on surgeries.

It is hoped the measures - which could be rolled out across England as soon as this winter - will help to free up 15 million slots at doctors' surgeries over the next two years.

Under the proposals, pharmacists will be able to write prescriptions for common conditions including earache, sore throat and urinary tract infections without needing the approval of a GP.

The measures - which are part of what ministers are calling an "overhaul of primary care" - are backed by £645m of spending over two years and come alongside efforts to end the 8am "rush" for appointments.

They are being announced just days after the Conservatives suffered from a punishing set of local election results on the back of high inflation, a cost of living crisis and record high levels of unhappiness with the NHS.

Ministers hope almost half a million women would no longer need to speak to a nurse or GP to get oral contraception under the new plans and that the number of people able to access blood pressure checks in pharmacies would be more than doubled to 2.5 million a year.

Which conditions will pharmacies be able to treat without a GP appointment?

Self-referrals will also be increased for services including physiotherapy, hearing tests and podiatry, bypassing the need to see a GP.

The proposals could be in place this winter pending a consultation with the industry.

The prime minister said "transforming primary care is the next part of this government's promise to cut NHS waiting lists".

"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," he added.

"We will end the 8am rush and expand the services offered by pharmacies, meaning patients can get their medication quickly and easily."

NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said the reforms would "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".

Labour's Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting criticised the announcement as "merely tinkering at the edges" and said it did not deliver the "fundamental reform" the NHS needs.

He pointed to figures from the Chemists' Association which reveal that 670 pharmacies and 343 surgeries have closed since 2015.

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Mr Streeting said: "13 years of Conservative failure has seen hundreds of pharmacies close and 2,000 GPs cut.

"Now millions of patients are waiting a month to see a GP, if they can get an appointment at all. Expecting the Conservatives to fix this is like expecting an arsonist to put out the fire they started.

"Rishi Sunak is completely out of touch with the problems facing patients and the NHS. 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."

Mr Streeting said Labour would abolish the non-dom tax status and use the proceeds to train an extra 7,500 doctors and 10,000 nurses every year.

The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Daisy Cooper, also said the plan was "not worth the paper it was written on", adding: "The Conservatives have broken their promise to recruit 6,000 more GPs leaving patients struggling to get the care they need when they need it.

"Accessing faster care is critical for patients but ministers just don't seem to grasp the scale of the problem."

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The idea of giving pharmacists the power to prescribe without GP approval is not new.

Therese Coffey, who was health secretary during the short period of Liz Truss's premiership, floated plans to enable pharmacies to manage and supply contraception prescriptions last September.

She also pledged that patients would see a GP within two weeks of making an appointment - although she did not set a target for when that should be achieved by.