Top health experts are looking into whether they should make high-strength, cholesterol-lowering drugs available over the counter at chemists across England.

The move is not without controversy, with leading healthcare professionals questioning how sensible the idea is. One of the country’s leading cardiologists has deemed the notion “farcical”.

NHS chief executive Simon Stevens has announced that pharmacist Dr Keith Ridge and newly-appointed director of primary care Dr Nikki Kanani are investigating whether there is sufficient benefit in making statins available without prescription.

At the moment, low-dose statins can be given without a prescription. However, in practice, this rarely happens in the UK.

The idea of making high-dose statins more readily available is part of the NHS Long Term Plan to cut cardiovascular complications.

NHS England has been working on a review laying out their argument which will be presented to the drugs watchdog, Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) which will make the final decision.

Speaking at the Expo health and care innovation conference in Manchester, Mr Stevens said: “Pharmacists are highly trained health professionals who are greatly valued by patients. Since the NHS will be funding local chemists to undertake health checks, it makes sense to consider whether there are a broader range of medicines that patients could access conveniently and locally on the high street.”

Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the RCGP, stated: “Extensive medical evidence has shown that statins are usually a safe and effective preventative measure against heart disease, and thousands of patients already benefit from statin therapy.

“But GPs are also mindful of the risks of over-diagnosis and over-treatment – a concern we expressed in response to recent [National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] guidelines that lowered the threshold for eligibility of statins – and we also have concerns about making these drugs more easily accessible without a prescription.”

Dr Aseem Malhotra, a leading NHS cardiologist, wrote in a letter to Norman Lamb, MP and chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee: “To hand out high-dose statins on the high street without telling patients they are not going to get a cardiovascular mortality benefit is completely unacceptable and unethical and should not be supported or condoned by any medical professional.

“Decades of attempting to lower cholesterol levels through drugs has failed and moves to combat heart disease should instead be focusing on helping patients improve their lifestyle, which doesn’t come with any side effects at all.”

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