The UK government has said it will invest an extra £645m in community pharmacy over the next two years, part of which will fund a ‘Pharmacy First’ service for England, allowing pharmacists to supply medicines for seven common health conditions, including earache, sore throat and urinary tract infections.
Plans to set up a national minor ailments service, similar to Scotland’s ‘NHS Pharmacy First’ service, were first floated by former health secretary Sajid Javid in October 2021.
In January 2023, health secretary Steve Barclay told the House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee that there was “strong agreement” between the government and the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) on setting up a Pharmacy First service, but added that the government needed “to look at the financing of that”.
The new funding for community pharmacy, announced by NHS England on 9 May 2023, forms part of a wider plan to improve access to primary care, which pharmacy leaders have said will make “better use of pharmacists’ clinical skills”.
Published as part of a plan for recovering access to primary care, published by the Department for Health and Social Care and NHS England, the Pharmacy First common ailment service will “launch before the end of 2023” and enable pharmacists “to supply prescription-only medicines, including antibiotics and antivirals where clinically appropriate, to treat seven common health conditions (sinusitis, sore throat, earache, infected insect bite, impetigo, shingles, and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women) without the need to visit a GP”.
The plan says that the service will run alongside the already-announced independent prescribing pathfinder pilots, and that some of the £645m will also fund an expansion of the NHS Pharmacy Contraception and NHS Hypertension Case-Finding services.
Since 24 April 2023, community pharmacies have been able to continue the provision of oral contraception supplies initiated in general practice or sexual health clinics. However, pharmacy bodies, including the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), called for the service to be paused until further funding was secured for the sector.
A statement from the PSNC, issued on 9 May 2023, said: “Service details and funding allocations will now be subject to negotiation between PSNC, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and NHS England,” including how the funding will be distributed between the services.
“These discussions, which will also look at the cost of IT integration and marketing of pharmacy services to the public, have already commenced and we hope to be able to report back to the sector over the summer,” it added.
Janet Morrison, chief executive of the PSNC, said the money was “the biggest investment in pharmacies for many years — [it] is a huge vote of confidence from government, the NHS and from ministers”.
“We hope that a fully-funded common conditions service and additional investment in the two existing services will help to give us a platform from which to build an ambitious future for pharmacies and the communities they serve.
“It is now clear that ministers recognise the value that pharmacies can offer and the services we can provide if we are put on a sustainable footing, and we will be looking to build on that positivity through our ongoing vision and strategy work. A financially-supported community pharmacy sector can do so much more.”
Nick Kaye, chair of the NPA, said: “People across England will soon have more convenient access to advice and treatment for common conditions, thanks to the expert support available in their local community pharmacies.
“As trusted and accessible healthcare professionals, pharmacists and their teams are ideally suited to handle common conditions like coughs, colds and urinary tract infections.”
Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association, said: “We have long been calling for the NHS to allow community pharmacy to play a leading role in urgent care. The access pharmacies offer is essential to tackling health inequalities and meeting a growing patient need. We encourage NHS England to be ambitious in their plans and take full advantage of this opportunity.”
Thorrun Govind, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s English Pharmacy Board, said the plans will “provide additional investment into the sector and seek to ensure everyone across the country has equal access to care from highly skilled pharmacists and their teams”.
“These plans will help to reduce health inequalities, especially in deprived areas where pharmacies are at the heart of their communities and trusted by patients.
“Providing treatment to help prevent common conditions from becoming worse and requiring more complex treatment later on is better for patients and also cost effective. Patients can expect to receive trusted advice from pharmacists in their local pharmacy.”