A shake-up of pharmacy services allowing patients to get some treatments without seeing a GP first will not make up for the declining number of pharmacies across England, ministers have been warned.

From Wednesday, thousands of pharmacists across England will be able to assess and treat patients for sinusitis, sore throat, earache, infected insect bites, impetigo, shingles and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women under 65, without the need for a GP appointment or prescription.

NHS England said more than nine in 10 community pharmacies in England – 10,265 in total – will be offering the checks under the Pharmacy First scheme.

The move is intended to give people more places to get the care they need, freeing up 10 million GP appointments a year.

The scheme is already being used, according to Health Secretary Victoria Atkins, but while MPs praised the initiative, they warned it would not make up for pharmacy closures over the last decade.

As the House of Commons was updated on the launch of the scheme, shadow health minister Preet Kaur Gill said: “This announcement won’t make up for the 1,000 pharmacies which have been closed under the Conservatives or the 2,000 GPs that have been cut since 2015. Patients today are still waiting over a month to see a GP if they can get an appointment at all.”

Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper said her party supports Pharmacy First, but added: “The minister will be aware that since 2015 there have been almost 700 permanent closures of pharmacies and the CCA (Company Chemists’ Association) now estimates that there is eight a week that are closing, including one in my constituency (St Albans).

“Could the minister say what steps she is taking to make sure there are no more closures this week, next week and every other week this year?”

UK Parliament portraits
Health minister Dame Andrea Leadsom said the Pharmacy First initiative is a boost to community pharmacies across England (Richard Townshend/UK Parliament/PA)

Health minister Dame Andrea Leadsom replied: “She talks about pharmacy closures – we do see pharmacies opening and closing.

“There have been a small number of net closures, but we are very well-served across England and we keep a very close eye on that, but this Pharmacy First is a real new boost to community pharmacies right across England.”

Pharmacies will receive an initial fixed payment of £2,000 each for providing the scheme, plus £15 per consultation and a monthly fixed payment of £1,000 if they do a minimum number of consultations.

Dame Andrea continued to face questions about pharmacy funding, with Labour former minister Ben Bradshaw asking: “She doesn’t appear concerned about the record number of community pharmacy closures under this Conservative Government. Why does she think it is happening?”

The health minister insisted there has been a 65% increase in registered pharmacies since 2010, “with plans to recruit to increase that number by 50% in the next few years”.

Dame Andrea earlier told Times Radio the Government provides “a significant sum of NHS money” to pharmacies – £2.6 billion per year – adding that negotiations for the 2024/25 contract will be starting soon.

Meanwhile, Tory former minister Sir Robert Buckland warned in the Commons that it is “very difficult to transfer or apply for licences” for pharmacy services once one closes, and urged the Government to speed up the licensing process.

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, echoed the warning from MPs, claiming that pharmacies are “severely underfunded to the tune of £1.2 billion now, and as a direct result of that are reducing opening hours and even closing completely”.

She added: “This nonsense cannot go on, and this stranglehold of chronic underfunding must be relieved now to ensure our community pharmacies continue to exist and can deliver to the potential the Government is expecting.”

The Health Secretary said patients have already started using the newly-launched Pharmacy First scheme.

Speaking during a visit to a Boots pharmacy in central London, Ms Atkins said: “The very first customer walked through a Boots in North Humber at 08.31 this morning to use the service.

“The more that we can help people understand that for those seven conditions they can pop to their pharmacy, the sooner we will see a real change to GP appointments.”

She added: “It’s great news for us as patients, but it’s also great news for pharmacists and GPs because, not only are we using the expertise of pharmacists to the top of their licence, but we will also through this scheme free up to 10 million GP appointments each year.”