Community Pharmacy England (CPE) has vowed to keep a close eye on how the Pharmacy First service develops, acknowledging that the scheme represents a ‘step into the unknown’ for the sector.

Speaking in a webinar examining the details and background of Pharmacy First ahead of its scheduled launch on 31 January 2024, CPE chief executive Janet Morrison assured pharmacists the negotiator would be ‘actively managing and monitoring’ delivery of the service and also remaining vigilant over workload pressures.

‘We don’t know how many consultations will be coming through the door [and] we don’t know the seasonality of when people will be coming through the door… but obviously we want it to be a success,’ said Ms Morrison.

Her view was echoed by Alistair Buxton, CPE director of NHS services, who said: ‘We really need to keep an eye on how this service develops… because this is a bit of a step into the unknown for all of us in terms of the likely numbers of consultations and how the patients and the public are going to react.’

Both speakers made the point that the success of the scheme requires a change in behaviour by the public, whereby people will have to become accustomed to seeking consultation from pharmacies for the seven common conditions included within Pharmacy First.

‘The service is predicated on good publicity [and] it's predicated on a behaviour change from the public in terms of turning to us and coming to us, and we don't know the capacity that [pharmacies] will have to be able to deliver,’ Ms Morrison said.

Although modelling work has been carried out by CPE, the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England, any insights gained are ‘speculative’, she added.

Mr Buxton revealed that CPE is providing input for NHS England campaigns aimed at increasing public awareness of Pharmacy First and prompting the required behaviour change.

‘We’re feeding into that programme and trying to influence it,’ he said. ‘It’s going to involve TV adverts, mainly for on-demand TV, with other media use including some physical posters, on bus shelters for example.’

Work is also being carried out to optimise online search results for the seven conditions so information on the Pharmacy First service will appear.

‘This is all going to launch in late February, so it gives us a little bit of time to get the show on the road,’ Mr Buxton said. ‘NHS England is also working to push out more comms to our primary care colleagues, particularly GPs.’

Ms Morrison insisted that ‘all the bodies want the service to be a success’.

She told the webinar: ‘We do know that ministers wouldn't be announcing a service like this and putting money into advertising it and putting energy behind it if they didn't want it to continue. And so that's why we will try to put as much energy as we can into supporting you to be able to make a success of the service and earn as much as you can from it.’

CPE will be hosting a series of webinars to help pharmacy owners and their teams to prepare for the new Pharmacy First service, as well as changes to the contraception and hypertension case-finding services. These include Pharmacy First: Getting to know the service on 13 December 2023, and Pharmacy First: Getting ready for launch on 15 January 2024.