Patients will be able to obtain prescription medicines and oral contraception directly from pharmacies under a blueprint to ease the pressure on GPs’ appointments.
Treatments for seven common conditions including earache, sore throat and urinary tract infections will be available without seeing a doctor under plans announced by Rishi Sunak.
The Prime Minister hopes the measures will help end the “all-too stressful wait” for appointments by freeing up 15 million slots at doctors’ surgeries over the next two years.
Pharmacists themselves would be able to write the prescriptions under the reform that ministers hope will be introduced this winter after a consultation with the industry.
Self-referrals will also be increased for access to services such as physiotherapy, hearing tests and podiatry without the requirement to see a GP first.
Mr Sunak announced the measures as he seeks to bounce back from the Conservatives’ poor performance in last week’s local elections, which saw the Tories shed 960 council seats.
“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.
“We will end the 8am rush and expand the services offered by pharmacies, meaning patients can get their medication quickly and easily.”
He outlined the plans as industry groups warned more pharmacies will close unless ministers provide more funding to the “struggling” sector.
It is hoped that almost half-a-million women would no longer need to speak to a nurse or GP to get oral contraception.
The other medications that GPs would be able to hand out would treat conditions including sinusitis, infected insect bite, impetigo and shingles.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said the “ambitious package” will 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.
Writing in the Daily Mail, she added: “Those needing to see a family doctor will be fast-tracked for an appointment, while patients with needs which can be better and more quickly met by other professionals, such as pharmacists, physios, mental health therapists or specialist nurses, will be able to skip the need to see a GP first.
“This fresh drive to improve access won’t be the whole answer, we know we need more GPs and other professionals, and we continue to work with Government to publish a long-term plan on workforce.”
Meanwhile Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national medical director for NHS England, said he hoped the much-anticipated workforce plan for the NHS in England would be published before the parliamentary recess.
Asked when the plan would be published, Sir Stephen told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are working with Government to get that plan out, it’s really important.
“We have passed the pre-election period of the local elections, so (the) Government can start publishing plans again, so, yes, at NHS England we would agree this is an important plan to get out.”
Thorrun Govind, the chairwoman of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in England, said the plans are a “real game-changer” for patients.
The proposals come on top of measures to make it easier to get GP appointments with online booking tools.
“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.
“Labour will abolish the non-dom tax status to train an extra 7,500 doctors and 10,000 nurses every year, so patients are seen on time again.”
The King’s Fund health think tank warned some pharmacies will not be able to offer the services because they may not have access to diagnostic tools, or sufficient staff and consultation rooms.
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”.
“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,” she added.
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.”