The pharmacist will see you now: will Sunak’s antibiotic prescription plans work?

Patients will be able to get prescription medicines and oral contraception directly from pharmacies in bid to ease pressure on GPs

Rishi Sunak at a pharmacy
Rishi Sunak has his blood pressure checked during visit to a Southampton pharmacy to promote the planned changes
(Image credit: Ben Birchall/Getty Images)

Pharmacies in England will be permitted to provide patients with prescriptions for seven common health conditions under new government plans.

Rishi Sunak said he hoped the scheme would help to reduce the “all-too stressful wait” for appointments at GPs’ surgeries by freeing up approximately 15m appointments over the next two years. Transforming primary care “is the next part of this government’s promise to cut NHS waiting lists”, the prime minister added.

The changes will be backed by £645m in funding to expand community pharmacy services and will also allow patients “who would be better seen by other staff such as physiotherapists or mental health specialists” to “bypass their GP”, said NHS England.

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But doctors said the plans “failed to deal with the underlying problem of stagnating GP numbers”, The Times reported.

‘Fraught with issues’

Under the proposals, patients will be able to get prescription medicines and oral contraception directly from a broader range of pharmacies without having to see a GP first. Pharmacists will be authorised to issue prescriptions for seven common health conditions: earache, uncomplicated urinary tract infection, sore throat, sinusitis, impetigo, shingles and infected insect bites.

The plans were unveiled yesterday as Sunak visited a GP practice in his home city of Southampton, where he helped out at his mother’s pharmacy during his childhood.

Following the visit, Preshan Jeevaratnam, a GP partner at the Living Well Partnership, warned that he was “not sure the infrastructure is there”.

Dr Jeevaratnam told the BBC that giving access to common prescriptions in pharmacies was “absolutely” a good idea. But he added: “There’s a lot of things we deal with in primary care that could be dealt with in a well-resourced pharmacy setting – that's the key, well-resourced.”

According to The Sun’s Jane Moore, the plans are “fraught with issues”.

“What if your ‘common ailment’ is actually an indication of something far more serious?” she asked. “Are pharmacists trained to spot that? And are they covered for any legal consequences if they get it wrong?”

Critics warn that community pharmacies are already “collapsing under the weight of NHS underfunding, spiralling drug prices and overheads, staff shortages and a failing GP service”, said the Daily Mail.

Many pharmacies are facing closure, “with huge consequences for all those who rely on them”, the paper added.

And not all the pharmacies that survive would be able to offer the additional clinical services, said Beccy Baird, a senior fellow at The King’s Fund think tank. “It will be really frustrating for patients to be bumped from pillar to post, only to end up back at the GP,” she cautioned.

‘A sticking plaster’

The GP recovery scheme was unveiled as Sunak “sought to move on from his party’s drubbing at the recent local elections”, said The Times. But the broader problem facing the health service remains doctor recruitment.

Kieran Sharrock, acting chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, said that while calling on pharmacists to provide more treatment was “probably a good thing”, the plans were little more than a “sticking plaster”. He told Times Radio: “This plan is really just scratching the surface.”

Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, agreed that while “all these initiatives are positive steps, none are the silver bullet that we desperately need to address the intense workload and workforce pressures GPs and their teams are working under”.

The hope may be that these pharmacy reforms will free up millions of GP appointments, said Isabel Hardman in The Spectator, but “speak to a GP” and “they’ll tell you that the only way to make it easier for patients to see a doctor would be to overhaul recruitment and fix the retention crisis”.

Of course, all that will take time, Hardman added. And “given that getting the NHS back on its feet is one of Sunak’s five priorities, he will be particularly interested in anything that offers him a short-term reward”.

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