We can help save the NHS, says Boots chief

We can help save the NHS, says Boots chief: Pharmacies want green light to prescribe drugs and offer vital services to help slash waiting list

  • Seb James wants those suffering from minor ailments to visit their local chemist
  • Boots is the UK’s biggest chemist chain, with more than 2,200 stores 
  • Bosses said the group could be ready to provide support ‘within weeks’ 

Plea: Boots boss Seb James says the NHS could save £2 billion a year

The boss of pharmacy giant Boots has promised to slash waiting times in doctors’ surgeries and ‘help solve the NHS crisis’ if he is given the green light to provide more services.

Chief executive Seb James wants his pharmacists to be able to prescribe medicine paid for by the NHS that is currently only available to patients via a GP or doctor.

He also wants the health service to ramp up efforts to encourage those suffering from minor ailments including sore throats, athlete’s foot and earache to visit their local chemist shop before resorting to the health service.

Boots is the UK’s biggest chemist chain, with more than 2,200 stores. Bosses told The Mail on Sunday the group could be ready to provide support ‘within weeks’.

The NHS is under severe strain this winter with more than 7.2 million patients waiting for hospital treatment.

James said more support from pharmacies could reduce pressure on GP surgeries and on hospitals, where emergency services can become clogged up by those with relatively minor ailments who have no other access to treatment.

Pharmacies in England are currently prevented from writing free NHS prescriptions – in contrast with those in Scotland and Wales.

The Department of Health is considering proposals that would allow high street pharmacists a greater role in treating basic illnesses. It could allow pharmacies to be paid by the NHS to provide consultations and treatments, to prescribe medicines including antibiotics, and to refer patients to a GP. The proposed service has been dubbed Pharmacy First.

James said Britain has 11,000 pharmacists, all highly qualified medical professionals, who are currently being underused.

‘We could help solve the NHS crisis,’ he said. ‘We could make a massive dent in waiting times for GPs. And we could make a massive dent in waiting times for chronic care.’

He said pharmacists could also help many hospital patients to be discharged earlier.

Boots and other chemist chains are in talks with Ministers. The firms argue that the potential plans could put the NHS on a much more sustainable footing and provide ‘significant savings’.

James believes the proposals could save the health service almost £2 billion each year. ‘We need to recognise that something has to change,’ he said.

A string of hospital trusts and ambulance services have recently declared critical incidents as they struggle to deal with the combination of record backlogs and surging flu and Covid cases. Some health chiefs have claimed delays are leading to around 500 excess deaths a week.

The plea from James comes as parts of England’s network of community pharmacies are said to be teetering on the brink of collapse. The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee – which includes large chains and independent pharmacists – says state funding has been cut by 30 per cent over the past seven years and is ‘now leading to a serious degradation of services to patients’.

It has called for increased investment in the sector and for the reversal of funding cuts.

All qualified pharmacists in England can prescribe medicines, but the NHS will not subsidise the cost to patients. In Wales and Scotland, however, the NHS commissions pharmacists to prescribe drugs.

Marc Donovan, director of healthcare development at Boots, said this had had ‘a real impact’ in easing pressure on local Welsh and Scottish NHS systems.

‘It is rather simple and could be rolled out within weeks,’ said Donovan. ‘The whole healthcare system is under pressure and there is a more efficient way of managing minor ailments in particular.’

Boots believes a change of policy in England would cut the need for 47 million GP appointments each year.

Figures from the scheme in Wales show that it led to an 18 per cent reduction in workloads for GPs and an 8 per cent drop in visits to A&E for minor ailments.

James added: ‘In Scotland and Wales it is working and it is incredibly helpful. We do not understand why it is not being commissioned in England.’

A Department of Health spokesman said: ‘Pharmacies already provide a range of clinical services and over the next 18 months we will be increasing the support pharmacists – who are degree-qualified medical health professionals – can provide.’

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