Community pharmacies hit hard by funding shortfall


Raj Patel.
Raj Patel.

 

By Raj Patel MBE
Board member of the National Pharmacy Association and owner of Hollowood Chemists

COMMUNITY pharma­cies are a familiar and much loved feature of Britain’s high streets.

Valued by the com­munities we serve, we supply vital medicines to millions of people, including the most vul­nerable, as well as pro­viding advice on a wide range of common ill­nesses. We’re a commu­nity asset in high streets and neighbourhoods across the land, and form a key part of the NHS family.

However, according to independent re­search just been pub­lished, many pharma­cies could soon vanish forever due to govern­ment underfunding.

Accountancy firm Ernst & Young (EY) says that almost three-quar­ters of pharmacies in England are at risk of closure if a serious funding shortfall is not addressed, with 72 per cent forecast to be loss-making within four years. On average, inde­pendent NHS pharma­cies will be making an annual loss of £43,000 by 2024, says the EY re­port, by which time the sector will be under­funded by the govern­ment to the tune of half a billion pounds.

More than a third – 38 per cent – are already operating at a loss.

Funding has already been dropping in real terms and will continue to do so for another four years under the current arrangements. The amount often doesn’t even cover the price that pharmacies have to pay for medi­cines for NHS patients.

If nothing changes, many small pharmacy businesses – often owned and run by BAME pharmacists who make up 42 per cent of the sector – could close, resulting in unemploy­ment and more pres­sure on the NHS as people turn to GPs and A&E departments for help that they can cur­rently get conveniently in pharmacies.

In my own group of pharmacies, we have al­ready had to make cut­backs. Where we had planned shop refits to further improve the clinical atmosphere, that activity has had to stop. Where we had planned to automate operations in order to make care more con­venient for patients, that has stopped too.

Instead of taking for­ward plans to expand our workforce, we have instead had to make re­dundancies. This was before the full impact of Covid-19 hit the economy.

Of course, our para­mount concern is al­ways the welfare of pa­tients, but the financial pressures are weighing heavy and are inevitably a distraction.

We are certainly not in a position to be in­vesting in new clinical services that would greatly benefit patients and the NHS.

Community pharma­cy teams have been among the true heroes of the coronavirus pan­demic. Pharmacies have stayed open con­stantly since the crisis began, easing the strain on the NHS. We’ve qui­etly got on with the job of keeping Britain healthy, incurring con­siderable costs to keep our doors open.

It’s hard to imagine how the country would have coped over the last few months without the pharmacy network, so it’s very troubling to think that we could see widespread closures.

The government needs to look again at the funding, which is just not enough for the industry to survive. The base funding must be reassessed and this should move year-on-year with, as a mini­mum, inflation.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock recently said he doesn’t want pharmacies to close and conceded that “if we’re going to ask phar­macies to do more it has to be paid for”.

All we are asking is that pharmacies are paid fairly, so that we are able to continue looking after the pa­tients and populations who rely on us.