Millions of women will be able to get the pill for free from chemists under new NHS plans

Millions of women in England will soon be able to access free contraceptive pills by going to their local chemist without having to see a GP.  

The new NHS plans start next month, and they will give women greater choice over where to get the pill and will free up appointments in under pressure GP surgeries.

Where women choose the combined oestrogen and progestogen pill, they will need a check-up with a pharmacist to record their blood pressure and weight.

But no checks are needed for the mini-pill (progestogen-only). This is also the case in other settings, NHS England said.

NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, said: "This is really good news for women - we all lead increasingly busy lives, and thanks to this action, rather than making a GP appointment, they can simply pop into their local pharmacy when they need or want to access contraception.

"We will also be expanding services so that more health checks are available for patients on the high street, which is not only better and easier for patients but also frees up NHS time for more GP appointments for those who need them most."

Women who are deemed at risk of blood clots on the combined pill because they are too overweight or whose blood pressure is high may be referred to their GP for further checks.

And ongoing checks to monitor blood pressure and weight, required by women on the pill, will also be available in pharmacies.

NHS England said it expects almost half a million women to be able to access the pill next year without needing to contact their GP first, with the figure rising after that.

Prescription figures for 2022/23 suggest there were almost three million prescriptions for the combined pill and more than four million for the mini pill.

Pharmacies need to sign up for the new service, meaning it will not be available immediately everywhere in England but as more pharmacies join the scheme, the web page will be updated so women can check which locations offer the service.

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The rollout is part of the NHS and government's primary care access recovery plan, announced by the head of the NHS and the prime minister in May, which committed it to making it quicker and easier for millions of people to access healthcare on their high street.

Pharmacists will also be able to offer life-saving blood pressure checks to at-risk patients over the next year with a commitment to deliver 2.5 million a year by Spring 2025 - up from 900,000 carried out last year. It is estimated this could prevent more than 1,350 heart attacks and strokes in the first year.

And beginning from early next year, patients will also be able to get treatment for seven common conditions directly from a pharmacy, without the need for a GP appointment or prescription. The new service will cover sinusitis, sore throat, earache, infected insect bite, impetigo, shingles, and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women.

'More options for women'

The ambitious plan aims to free up to 10 million GP appointments a year by next winter.

Victoria Atkins, health and social care secretary, said: "It is a pleasure to start my time as secretary of state with such a positive example of the government, NHS and pharmacy sector working together to reach an agreement to improve services and save lives.

"For the public, these changes will mean more options for women when making a choice about their preferred contraception, reduce the risks of people suffering heart attacks and strokes and make it easier to access medicines for common conditions.

"And for healthcare professionals, this will free up GP appointments and make better use of the skills and expertise within community pharmacies."

'Not a giant breakthrough'

However, the Family Planning Association told Sky News: "We welcome this but it's not a giant breakthrough - women could previously get both types of pill from their GP.

"It's positive because it gives women choice and convenient access at a time when it can be hard to get an appointment at GPs and sexual health clinics.

"A better solution would be to give more funding to GPs and clinics in addition to the new access via pharmacies.

"The pill isn't right for everyone. It's important that anyone who needs contraception is offered appropriate information and access to the full range of contraception. That includes the most effective long-acting reversible contraceptive methods so that they're able to make a genuine informed choice.

"So while this is a welcome initiative, it only covers the pill. Investment in contraception services is still needed to make sure all women can make a choice that's right for them."