At first sight, it seems the Government might finally have acted to solve the crisis that is bankrupting our High Street community pharmacies.
Last week, Amanda Pritchard, the chief executive of NHS England, declared that community pharmacists will get £645 million extra money over the next two years to boost staffing and resources.
For the past six months, the Daily Mail’s Save Our Local Pharmacies campaign has highlighted how financial crises have shut hundreds of our vital independent community pharmacies in the past few years, with thousands more set to follow them into extinction.
Their plight is due to a massive funding shortfall in the NHS contract with pharmacists which punishes them financially every time they serve us with vital medicines.
At the same time, they’re also dealing with spiralling overhead costs such as staffing and energy bills.
The £645 million is to fund England’s independent pharmacies to prescribe, for the first time, certain medications, including antibiotics, and offer routine tests without the patient needing to see a GP first (file image)
Last week, Amanda Pritchard (pictured), the chief executive of NHS England, declared that community pharmacists will get £645 million extra money over the next two years
So while the announcement of hundreds of millions in NHS cash might seem a victory, pharmacy leaders have told Good Health that it isn’t.
This is because the new money is for pharmacists to provide extra services, rather than to pay them properly for what they do already.
The £645 million is to fund England’s independent pharmacies to prescribe, for the first time, certain medications, including antibiotics, and offer routine tests without the patient needing to see a GP first.
The medications that pharmacists will now be able to prescribe are for seven common ailments: earache, sore throat, sinusitis, impetigo (a type of skin infection), shingles, infected insect bites and urinary tract infections (in women). In addition, women will be able to get contraceptive pills from pharmacies without having to speak to a GP or practice nurse.
The new money is also intended to double the number of blood-pressure checks that community pharmacists currently provide, to 2.5 million a year.
However, this new money doesn’t tackle the funding shortfalls that have forced 160 community pharmacies in England to close in the past two years alone, according to new figures from the NHS Business Services Authority.
In motoring terms, it’s as if your car fuel gauge shows empty, and then you’re given a caravan to hitch to the back.
That is why Tim Gibbs, who owns and runs the Yarmouth Pharmacy on the Isle of Wight, was both surprised and disappointed by the news.
‘I’d heard nothing about this money before the NHS England announcement last week,’ he told Good Health.
‘There’s no real detail. There’s supposed to be a consultation process about where the money’s going to go and how it will be spent, so until that’s done we know very little.’
Good Health first featured 58-year-old Tim in November last year when we launched the Save Our Local Pharmacies campaign. Back then, he was having to work 85-hour weeks to keep his business going.
Today, he is still working 85-hour weeks — and he can’t see how the newly announced funds will help.
‘I understand that the money won’t be rolled out until the end of this year,’ he says. ‘Regardless of when it comes, it won’t help my plight because it doesn’t address the crisis facing me and my fellow community pharmacists.
‘The crisis is that the basic payments we get for prescribing medicines are insufficient to pay for the core work of what we do — prescribing essential medicines to people in our communities.
‘The costs of all the basics have gone up — including the cost of the medicines we dispense. Often, though, the Government won’t reimburse us fully for spiralling drug prices, and so we lose out.
‘In their rush to add extra services to what we do, ministers have forgotten to address the fundamental problems that are driving community pharmacies into the ground.
‘This isn’t about helping pharmacies anyway: it’s about helping GPs by trying to get us to take on some of their workload.’
Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, agrees. She told Good Health: ‘The £645 million doesn’t address our biggest problem. The basic core NHS funding we need just to function is currently short by £1.1 billion a year.
‘This is why we’re still seeing pharmacists going out of business.
‘We are on our knees, and we are not even sure that the new money will cover the new things that the Government is asking us to do.’
Under the measures unveiled last week, the Government revealed a pharmacy common ailments scheme in England would be launched before the end of 2023. Under the service, patients will be able to get a prescription from their pharmacist for seven minor illnesses including earache and urinary tract infections without having to see their GP first
She points out that while the new system empowers community pharmacies to provide new care, it may, for example, take between 20 and 40 minutes for a pharmacist to assess a patient’s suitability for a prescribed drug for, say, a urinary tract infection.
‘Will the new money be enough to pay for a locum pharmacist to cover for the shop’s pharmacist while they’re busy with that?’
If the shop has only one pharmacist and they are busy assessing a patient, then by law the other customers can’t get their prescriptions dispensed until the pharmacist is free to supervise this.
Meanwhile, the cost of locums is spiralling.
According to the recruitment company Reed, the average pay for a locum pharmacist in the UK is £64,571 per year — which is why community pharmacists have told us that they can’t take proper holidays — they just can’t afford the locum cover.
Taiwo Owatemi, a qualified pharmacist and Labour MP who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pharmacy, told Good Health: ‘Poor pay and conditions at community pharmacies are causing thousands of qualified pharmacists to leave the sector, which means that these extra services are going to be very hard to deliver.’
Furthermore, Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists Association, the trade association for large pharmacy operators in England, Scotland and Wales, highlights the fact that much of the newly announced £645 million won’t be funding new patient services.
‘For instance, some of it is going to be used to update the IT systems needed to communicate between GPs and pharmacies to update patients’ records when pharmacists treat them,’ he told Good Health.
The additional money is ‘certainly not a magic wand that will make everything fine’, adds Janet Morrison, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), which represents England’s 11,000 community pharmacies in funding talks with ministers.
‘We have been suffering under systematic funding cuts of 30 per cent since the current NHS contract with community pharmacies was introduced in 2015 — and this is the first injection of money since then.’
She says the PSNC had been asking ministers for £875 million extra funding to get the sector through the next two years — so considerably more than the £645 million that has been announced.
‘From our perspective, the pressures on our sector means that the ballpark figure for underfunding is actually around £1 billion,’ she says.
Nevertheless, community pharmacists remain broadly positive.
Leyla Hannbeck says: ‘At the end of the day, it is still a step in the right direction. It does show that government ministers know the value community pharmacies can bring to the table.’
And Mark Lyonette, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association, told Good Health: ‘The injection of funds is a welcome vote of confidence, even though the underlying position remains extremely challenging.
‘We tip our caps to the Mail’s campaigning on this issue, which has backed us all the way by keeping the public aware of the plight of neighbourhood pharmacies.’
Janet Morrison says: ‘The Daily Mail has done a great job in raising public awareness of the crisis, which has had a big impact. Now we feel more valued and understood by Government — and that has helped us to make the case for adequate funding.’
Malcolm Harrison added: ‘Thank you for what you are doing by telling the truth of our story and the challenges that we have to face every day. We need the Mail to carry on campaigning.’