A total of 10,265 community pharmacies in England will begin offering the new Pharmacy First service from today – marking what has been described as a ‘step-change’ for pharmacies, patients and the public.

Among leaders welcoming the new service today is Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who said that with the launch of Pharmacy First the government was ‘determined to go further’ and unlock the ‘full potential’ of community pharmacies to deliver routine care.

And NHS England (NHSE) chief executive Amanda Pritchard described the service as ‘great news for patients’, adding that it was ‘part of major transformation in the way the NHS delivers care, with the health service determined to giving people more choice in how they can access treatment’.

She said: ‘GPs are already treating millions more people every month than before the pandemic, but with an ageing population and growing demand, we know the NHS needs to give people more choice and make accessing care as easy as possible.

‘People across England rightly value the support they receive from their high street pharmacist, and with eight in 10 living within a 20-minute walk of a pharmacy and twice as many pharmacies in areas of deprivation, they are the perfect spot to offer people convenient care for common conditions.’

From today, community pharmacies in England will be able to supply treatment, including antibiotics where clinically appropriate, for sinusitis, sore throat, earache, infected insect bite, impetigo, shingles, and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women, under a nationally commissioned patient group direction (PGD).

But some pharmacies may not be offering consultations or treatment for otitis media (earache) until 1 April as NHSE allowed them to delay that part of the service if they had ordered otoscope equipment that had not yet arrived.

NHSE confirmed a total of 10,265 community pharmacies would begin offering Pharmacy First in England, while 5,367 pharmacies had also now signed up to provide the NHS Pharmacy Contraception Service.

Chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) in England Tase Oputu noted that the expansion of clinical services ‘makes the most of the valuable skills of pharmacists and their teams’.

‘Pharmacy teams have made an incredible effort to get the service ready alongside all the additional pressures they face. It's an exciting transformation, helping to reshape the landscape of primary care,’ she said.

Meanwhile, Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), highlighted the value of ‘community pharmacies’ unique and unequalled access’ in delivering the service.

Dr Claire Fuller, NHS medical director for primary care and the NHS’ lead GP in England, welcomed the service as ‘a wonderful move to increase accessibility to healthcare for patients’.

She also said the service would ‘relieve pressure on our hard-working GPs, freeing up millions of appointments for those who need them the most’.

Concerns have been raised recently about how the pressures currently facing the community pharmacy sector will impact the roll-out of the service and the wellbeing of pharmacists and their teams.

But Paul Rees, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), said that despite the ‘great pressure’ currently faced by community pharmacy, ‘pharmacy teams will step up and successfully deliver this highly beneficial service’.

And he said that Pharmacy First would ‘play to the strengths of pharmacists as medicines experts and free up GPs for other work that requires their particular skills’.

‘This could be a steppingstone to the development of other NHS clinical services in the future, as patients become familiar with going to their local pharmacy for primary care,’ he added.

Louise Ansari, chief executive of patient advocacy group Healthwatch England, welcomed the service, but suggested that it would ‘take time for pharmacists to get trained and ready for change’.

And she added: ‘Patients and GP services need up to date information on which of their local pharmacies are offering direct supply of medicines for one, some, or all seven of the new conditions.

‘Investment in a national campaign to raise awareness of the new services and build trust in pharmacists will also be essential and, crucially, this will need to reach all communities to be effective.’

An NHSE marketing campaign to raise awareness of Pharmacy First will launch in mid-February, while Community Pharmacy England (CPE) has created its own resources available for download, including posters, social media content, leaflets and a local press release.

Speaking about the launch of Pharmacy First today, CPE chief executive Janet Morrison noted that the service ‘marks a step-change for pharmacies, patients and the public’ that the negotiator hopes to build on for the future.

And she strongly encouraged the public to make ‘full use’ of the service.

Chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) Malcolm Harrison also welcomed the service, which he said would ‘dramatically help improve access for patients and will free up GP capacity at a critical time for the NHS’.

‘We are confident that as this service launches, the community pharmacy sector will deliver for patients and the NHS, just as it did during the Covid-19 pandemic,’ he added.

Mr Harrison also expressed hopes that the service could be expanded in the future.

He last week told The Pharmacist that ‘earwax removal could be the type of activity' that could be considered as part of future expansions.

The sector has long called for community pharmacy to take an expanded role in the management of conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as women’s health.

But the government currently has ‘no plans’ to add to the seven common conditions covered by Pharmacy First service, pharmacy minister Andrea Leadsom confirmed in December.