Pharmacy closures ‘a betrayal to the elderly and vulnerable’

The loss of hundreds of community pharmacies in recent years is a “national disgrace and a betrayal to the elderly and the vulnerable”, sector leaders have declared.

National bodies and MPs will this week demand urgent action to resolve a funding crisis that is forcing chemists to close their doors for good.

Some 11,000 community pharmacies in England rely on the NHS for around 90 per cent of their income.

But representatives say the value of a five-year contract agreed in 2019 has been severely eroded by record levels of inflation and elevated costs of energy and medicines.

At least 720 community pharmacies have shut down since 2015, according to a recent report by the Company Chemists’ Association.

The crisis comes at a time when they are increasingly acting as a front door to the NHS where patients can seek advice about non-urgent problems without an appointment.

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIM), said: “They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. That’s certainly how the British public will feel when another 1,000 pharmacies have closed their doors for good.

“What is happening in England is a national disgrace and a betrayal to the elderly, the vulnerable or those without the means to live independently in their own homes.

“Community pharmacies are located within the very hotspots of peoples’ communities. They are trusted, respected and have the right credentials to ease so many of the pressures facing our NHS. We need to save our pharmacies.”

More than 50 parliamentarians will this week sound the alarm in a letter to the Prime Minister, led by the All-Party Pharmacy Group.

Rishi Sunak has often spoken about helping at his mother’s chemist shop in Southampton as a child and credited his time there for shaping “the values that I want to bring to government”.

The letter highlights the role pharmacies could play in relieving pressure on other parts of the embattled health service, allowing hospitals to focus on clearing backlogs. But it warns that significant workforce shortages and insufficient funding means their potential is not being realised.

Former Tory cabinet ministers Caroline Dinenage and Jackie Doyle-Price, and patient safety champion Baroness Cumberlege, were among those who signed.

The APPG’s chair, Labour MP and pharmacist Taiwo Owatemi MP, said the window to halt this funding crisis “is quickly slipping away”.

She added: “A double disaster is looming in which more local pharmacies close for good and their potential to help the NHS is lost.

“Pharmacy teams have the skills and knowledge to help more patients and improve access to primary care, but only if they are given the funding and resources to do it.

“This letter signed by over 50 parliamentarians shows the level of support for pharmacy across parliament. If the country is to benefit from all that pharmacy can offer in the future, we need that support to be replicated among ministers and in the Treasury.”

A recent report by the APPG found community pharmacy now accounts for a lower percentage of total health spending than at any point since the NHS was founded in 1948.

After adjusting for inflation, the value of the pharmacy contract within the NHS in England was said to have shrunk by a quarter since 2015.

Four national pharmacy bodies – AIM, the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA), the National Pharmacy Association, and the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee – have also launched a Save Our Pharmacies campaign.

They are asking members of the public to join the fight by signing a petition.

It calls on the Government to provide fair and sustainable funding to ensure the long-term future of pharmacies, and commission a Pharmacy First service that will allow more patients with minor illnesses to be treated by their chemist, easing pressure on GPs.

In a joint statement, the organisations said pharmacies could help the NHS get back on its feet, “but not while the sector itself is on its knees”.

They added: “The Government can continue to degrade pharmacy funding and let patients suffer the inevitable consequences of a reduction in services and pharmacies; or they can invest in this popular, cost-effective, entrepreneurial sector and empower pharmacies to help to meet the many challenges facing our health service.

“If the current situation continues, then patients will bear the brunt, especially those in areas of deprivation.

“Without immediate investment, pharmacy closures will not only accelerate but primary care access will deteriorate, plunging the NHS into an even deeper crisis.”

CCA chief executive Malcolm Harrison urged Mr Sunak to “stand with community pharmacies, for the benefits of patients and the public”.

He added: “Community pharmacy is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The sector has the potential to do more to alleviate the pressure on GPs and other overstretched parts of the NHS.

“Unfortunately, our ambitions are being stifled by years of underfunding, which is now calculated to be around £67,000 a year per pharmacy.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Community pharmacies play a vital role in supporting the NHS and we back them with £2.6 billion a year.

“We have also announced a further £100 million investment in the sector to support pharmacies with increased services.”

To sign the petition, click here.

Drug shortages put pressure on staff

His local pharmacy is a lifeline for David Drees, who needs a raft of drugs for conditions including diabetes, prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s.

The 71-year-old visits Zina Pharmacy in Kenley, south London, every couple of weeks to collect his latest prescriptions.

Asked how important the services provided there are, he said simply: “I’d die [without them]. I’m on about 14 medications these days, so I’m a regular.”

David, who also takes pills for a heart condition, has noticed the growing pressure on the friendly staff who serve him.

They often come under fire from patients frustrated when they have to wait for their prescription or drugs are unavailable due to shortages.

David said: “I’ve seen a lot of people come in and get really upset, there’s quite a bit of shouting and moaning. During Covid, that was particularly bad.”

Around 7,000 items are dispensed at Zina Pharmacy – a member of the Medipharmacy Group – every month.

Risha Bhuwad, 32, is the company’s head of pharmacy and oversees 25 sites across London, many family-owned.

She said: “It’s not unusual for us to have a patient screaming or shouting because something’s out of stock.

“We’re well trained and understand that if patients are unwell, they can become frustrated. But there have been times when they will trash the shop as they leave.”

Community pharmacies are increasingly acting as a front door to the NHS, where patients can seek help for non-urgent problems without an appointment.

As well as filling prescriptions they provide services such as vaccinations, blood pressure checks and health consultations.

Ms Bhuwad said the “sky’s the limit” when it comes to the role they could play in supporting the nation’s health. However, she warned that funding was not keeping pace with demand.

“When pharmacies are closing, we’re not shocked any more,” Ms Bhuwad said.

“The traditional model of pharmacy is not what it used to be, we do so much more and that needs to be recognised and valued fairly.”

Staff and drug shortages are also major problems. Pharmacy leaders have been asking for more power to alter prescriptions and offer alternative drugs when one is out of stock.

Ms Bhuwad said: “Community pharmacists are experts in medicine and we need to be recognised as that.

“If we need an amendment on a prescription, the majority of the time I will be ringing the doctor to say, ‘This is out of stock, I would suggest you prescribe this in place.’

“Why do we have to wait for the doctor to call us back when we know what the alternatives are?”

Terrie Thorpe, 35, is a non-pharmacist manager at Zina who has seen “dramatic” changes during her 17 years in the field.

She said: “We’re the centre of the community and love the job that we do, but there’s a lot of pressure to perform and meet targets.

“We don’t have the funding to be able to employ more staff or stay open longer.”

Ms Thorpe urged ministers to invest in pharmacies to halt their decline. She added: “If we are forced to close or cut our hours because we can’t afford to stay open then it’s not just our lives that are affected, but our patients as well.”

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