This letter was published in the Hampstead & Highgate Express on 1 May 2020
“…how important it is that our pharmacists are not only dispensing vital medicines but also very often reassurance to the customers they interact with…so thank you to our wonderful pharmacists for everything that you are doing” – The Prime Minister on March 29.
A welcome appreciation for pharmacists in the national emergency as the only primary care facility still fully open to the public across over 11,000 outlets in England.
The fact is however that community pharmacy went into the pandemic in the grip of a crisis of its own following a series of severe government funding cuts. Between 2015 and 2018, the reduction to the pharmacy budget was 7.4% – £210 million. The sector’s current deal with the government, lasting for five years and with no new money, is estimated with inflation to cut at least a further 9%.
Then Pharmacy Minister Alistair Burt told MPs in 2016 he foresaw up to 3,000 pharmacy closures from the cuts. A petition of 2 million signatures opposing them did nothing to turn the tide.
Pharmacy’s plight is exacerbated by the broken system of reimbursement for the drug purchases pharmacies make for NHS prescriptions that regularly pays them back less for the drugs than they paid suppliers for them.
This onslaught seems counter-intuitive when there is a great deal community pharmacy could be doing in normal times to alleviate the enormous stresses on GPs and A&E departments. The 1.4 million flu vaccinations given in pharmacies in England in the 2018-19 season are testament to what can be achieved.
The position in England is in stark contrast to Scotland, where the cherishing of their community pharmacy by the Scottish government is underpinned by regular investment.
The oppressive situation has left pharmacy owners with no choice but to resort to reduced opening hours, staff reductions and withdrawal of free services such as deliveries and preparation of measured drug trays for the elderly. And then, of course, there are closures, a proportion of them falling in deprived areas where community healthcare needs can be the greatest.
The pandemic presents a major financial challenge all of its own as pharmacies face up to a huge spike in bills from the surge in covid-related dispensing. True the government has put some more funding in, £300 million, to aid cash flows but it’s strictly a loan to the sector – every penny must be repaid later.
Pharmacy’s representative body in funding discussions, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, has tried repeatedly to get the government to relent on its stance but to no avail. Instead the impression is left of a political power that cares little for the contribution pharmacy makes to national wellbeing or for the dedicated, hardworking teams who people it, and simply sees a soft touch for scalping public funds.
Might it be hoped that when the current crisis is over, the PM’s effusive words will translate into a meaningful re-assessment of the government’s funding approach?
Dr Marion Harvey BPharm MRPharmS PhD
Keats Pharmacy & Vaccination Clinic
(Keats Pharmacy Limited)