Rishi Sunak has announced plans to cut the time it takes to see a GP in England as the prime minister hurried to deliver on his promise to cut NHS waiting lists before voters go to the polls in a general election expected by late next year.
The measures will allow people suffering from a range of common ailments to get prescription medication directly from a pharmacy, rather than having to see a family doctor first. These will include drugs to treat conditions such as earache or a sore throat.
Sunak, who is under pressure after the Conservatives lost about 1,000 seats in the local elections last week, made the commitment to reduce queues for treatment at the start of the year, one of five priority policy areas that he said on Tuesday he was “getting on with delivery”.
Transforming primary care “is the next part of this government’s promise to cut NHS waiting lists”, he added.
NHS England said that the new arrangements, which would also allow women to obtain oral contraception direct from a pharmacist, would be in place by the winter.
The changes will be backed by £645mn to expand community pharmacy services and are intended to ease pressure on surgeries by releasing about 15mn GP appointments over the next two years, the government said.
The difficulty in securing an appointment to see a family doctor is one of the most common complaints about the UK’s taxpayer-funded health service.
Dissatisfaction with the NHS is at an all-time high and in the annual British Social Attitudes survey published in March, more than two-thirds of respondents identified long waiting times to get a GP or hospital appointment as one of the biggest reasons.
The Health Foundation, a research organisation, last year estimated there was a shortage of about 4,200 full-time equivalent GPs, which was projected to more than double to almost 9,000 by the end of the decade. The government has previously admitted that a 2019 manifesto pledge to recruit an additional 6,000 GPs by 2025 will not be met.
In another step to reduce demand on health practices, up to half a million people a year will be able to self-refer for services including physiotherapy, hearing tests and podiatry without first seeing a GP. for appointments” by investing in better phone technology.
Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, said GPs were “working incredibly hard to deal with unprecedented demand for appointments”. But with an aging population, “we know we need to further expand and transform the way we provide care for our local communities ”.
Mark Lyonette, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association, described the move as “a long overdue step” that could “set us back on track for a sustainable, clinically focused future after years of decline”.
However, Professor Kamila Hawthorne, who chairs the Royal College of GPs, said while all the initiatives were positive “none are the silver bullet that we desperately need to address the intense workload and workforce pressures GPs and their teams are working under”.
Labor MP Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said millions of patients were waiting a month to see a GP “if they can get an appointment at all” and said the government’s move was “merely tinkering at edges”.
Beccy Baird, senior fellow at the King’s Fund, said not all pharmacies would be able to offer the additional clinical services and it would “be really frustrating for patients to be bumped from pillar to post, only to end up back at the GP”.