Women will be able to obtain the Pill from a pharmacy without a prescription under a pilot scheme to begin next year, it was revealed yesterday.
Two London primary care trusts have received cash to act as pilot sites for the scheme, which will be rolled out across England if successful.
Women will be able to obtain the oral contraceptive pill after an interview with a pharmacist. If the pilots are successful, the Pill could be put on the same footing as the morning-after pill, which is already available at pharmacies without direct authorisation from a doctor.
The Health minister Lord Darzi said last year that "robust" standards would be put in place if the scheme were to go ahead, to ensure staff were up to the job; senior clinicians at strategic health authorities will have to issue patient group directions to pharmacists before they could give out the Pill.
The directions are documents which make it legal for medicines to be given to groups of patients without the need for individual GP prescriptions and are already used for the morning-after pill.
Separate directions are needed to give the Pill to under-16s and involve the pharmacist assessing whether the customer is mentally competent.
The pilot scheme will take place in Lambeth and Southwark primary care trusts. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said it would receive quarterly updates on the scheme from the health authorities and would work with them to assess its success.
"Any woman who receives contraception from a pharmacy without a prescription can still expect a full consultation with a health professional such as pharmacist or a nurse," the spokeswoman said."We want to improve women's access to contraception and help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies without undermining patient safety.
"Pilots like these will help to show whether supplying contraception through pharmacies is effective in reducing unintended pregnancies and we have invested an additional £26.8m in 2008/09 to do this."
The department expected primary care trusts to put robust training and clinical governance arrangements in place in preparation for the schemes.
Richard Hoey, the deputy editor of the GP newspaper Pulse, which revealed the scheme's pilot sites, said: "It probably makes sense to make the Pill available without prescription, but we won't really know until the theory has been put to the test. It's a good idea to run pilots, and it's important that the results are analysed carefully and objectively, to ensure the advantages in terms of convenience do not outweigh the disadvantages in terms of patient safety."Reuse content