Private companies are lining up to provide the extended access to family doctors called for by Lord Darzi in the interim report of his review into the future of the NHS.

HSJ can reveal Alliance Boots has said it can provide all 150 high-street walk-in centres recommended by the junior health minister. Lloyds-pharmacy has also said it could roll out extended services in its pharmacies in ‘months rather than years’.

Lord Darzi called on the government, which has accepted all his recommendations, to invest in bringing at least 100 new GP centres into the 25 per cent of primary care trusts with the least provision.

Lord Darzi said money should also be made available to enable PCTs to set up 150 GP-led walk-in centres ‘situated in easily accessible locations’ where patients could access services from 8am-8pm, seven days a week, whether or not they were registered there. Health secretary Alan Johnson has made clear he sees a role for the private sector in delivering the new services.

Alliance Boots has already set up a walk-in centre in Poole in collaboration with the PCT and is in talks with more than 20 other PCTs about developing similar schemes.

Head of public affairs Peter Gibson said: ‘We have 100-150 locations with excess space, although clearly this won’t match up exactly [with] where the government wants to put its centres. It would essentially work as a landlord’s deal - we can let the space and they can use it.’ Alliance Boots has no plans to directly employ GPs but Mr Gibson did not rule it out. Meanwhile, Virgin is planning to set up two or three urban health centres employing 10-12 NHS GPs each.

Alan Maynard, professor of health economics at York University, said: ‘The government lost out-of-hours in the new contract and is having to spend a large lump of money to improve access - it seems rather clumsy.’

Senior medical officials are at odds over the prospect of longer GP opening hours. Dr Bill Kirkup, director of clinical programmes in England, told the Royal College of GPs’ annual conference that Lord Darzi’s plan could help tackle health inequalities. He was supported by Professor Mike Harmer, deputy chief medical officer for Wales.

But Scottish chief medical officer Dr Harry Burns was sceptical that the centres - which will not be set up in Scotland - would tackle health inequalities. He said: ‘If you are going to narrow health inequalities you have to tackle whole populations and drop-in centres are not a population-based idea.’

For more analysis, see Michael White’s column and the editor’s comment