Former health secretary Dr Thérèse Coffey has praised Pharmacy First as a ‘sensible approach’ that treats pharmacists ‘like proper professionals’.

In October 2022, as health secretary at the time, Dr Coffey faced backlash over claims that she was planning to allow pharmacists to prescribe antibiotics for certain conditions.

This triggered concern from some healthcare professionals, promoting pharmacists to respond that such outrage was ‘grossly insulting’ to community pharmacists’ capabilities.

Under the new Pharmacy First scheme in England, pharmacists can supply medicine to treat seven common conditions, including with antibiotics where appropriate.

In a parliamentary debate around the launch of the service last week, Ms Coffey, Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal, said that Pharmacy First was ‘was one of the key things in [her] plan for patients that [she] wanted to ensure happened’.

‘This is the sort of sensible approach that, frankly, met some resistance during my time in the Department, with worries about over-prescribing,’ she said.

‘It is about treating pharmacists like proper professionals and, most important, providing quicker access to necessary care, which patients will now properly enjoy.’

Also during the debate, Labour MP for Eltham Clive Efford suggested that Pharmacy First would create an expectation among patients that they would be supplied medication, and asked whether pharmacists would be trained in refusing to supply drugs when inappropriate.

Pharmacy minister and Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire Dame Andrea Leadsom responded that pharmacists would be ‘prescribing for seven common conditions’.

‘Plenty of referrals will be made to GPs, and from GPs to pharmacists, to give patients the accessibility and the appropriate level of assessment for their needs,’ she added.

MPs also asked what investment would be made in the pharmacy workforce and in the long-term prescribing future of the sector.

Shadow pharmacy minister and Labour (Co-op) MP for Birmingham, Edgbaston, Preet Kaur Gill asked what the government’s plan was to ‘integrate the increase in independent prescribers who are being trained as part of the long-term workforce plan’.

And she asked whether Dame Andrea agreed ‘that we should be accelerating the roll-out of independent prescribing to establish a community pharmacist prescribing service covering a broad range of common conditions?’

She also suggested that community pharmacies could play ‘an important role’ in helping to manage long-term conditions such as hypertension and asthma, as well as in reducing over-prescribing.

Dame Andrea responded that ‘community pharmacists have for some time now been delivering blood pressure checks, which in some cases are truly lifesaving’.

She added: ‘This is amazing patient access and patient convenience. The Labour Party should, for once, simply praise it and be glad that the government have stuck to our plan and got on with it.’

Conservative MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis James Morris raised the need to invest in the pharmacy workforce more broadly, ‘so that those in alternative roles within pharmacies, such as pharmacy technicians, have the capacity to take the opportunities [the pharmacy minister] has outlined’.

Dame Andrea responded that investing in the workforce was ‘vital’ and added: ‘We have seen a 61% increase in the number of registered community pharmacists since 2010, and we aim in our long-term NHS workforce plan to increase that by a further 50%. We have already increased the number of training places for both pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.’

And she agreed to speak to Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North Dame Diana Johnson about proposals to establish a school of pharmacy attached to Hull York Medical School.

Dame Andrea also committed to ensuring ‘that the sector is appropriately resourced and has the right training’ to make a success of Pharmacy First.

But several MPs raised concerns about cost and capacity pressures facing community pharmacy as the service rolls out.