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Commentary: Decline must be reversed


Commentary: Decline must be reversed

The Government needs to act now to reverse the worrying decline in community pharmacies in England, says Phoenix boss Steve Anderson

Years of Government underfunding could see 3,000 pharmacies in England — around a third of the network — having no option but to shut their doors in the next few years.

That figure is based on independent assessments from Ernst & Young and UCL/LSE healthcare professors: it is not scaremongering – it is the reality the country faces.

Fifty per cent of pharmacies are already in financial distress because Government funding has been falling in real terms since 2019 and that figure is predicted to rise to 75 per cent within the next two years. Ministers need to act now and invest in pharmacy or sleepwalk into a healthcare disaster as we have seen with access to dentistry care.

Prescription volumes have risen consistently year-on-year by roughly 2 per cent, which means fewer pharmacies doing more work and under greater pressure
than a decade ago.

Not fit for purpose

The health secretary recently asked community pharmacy to do more to avoid a winter NHS crisis yet at the same time said there would be no new money to pay for those additional services. And all this at a time when the network is in decline with random unplanned pharmacy closures and pharmacy teams facing huge workload pressures every day.

The Government’s approach to pharmacy literally does not add up: the contractual framework in England is not fit for purpose now, let alone when dealing with a NHS winter crisis.

“The 2019 contract is no longer relevant given the economic realities of 2022”

Recipe for disaster

Neglecting pharmacy in this way is a recipe for disaster. The GP network is in decline – 1,700 fewer GPs since 2015; over a third of GPs want to take early retirement – and A&E is already strained beyond its capacity.

Pharmacy could alleviate the strain on other parts of the NHS and improve patient care and outcomes, but it is being starved of Government funding. Funding was fixed at £2.6bn in 2019 for five years taking no account of inflation which, as we know, has reached scary levels. The 2019 contract is no longer relevant given the economic realities of 2022.

I hope the Government will rethink pharmacy funding austerity and help prevent closures before it is too late. For too long, the sector has suffered from “here today, gone tomorrow” health secretaries, resulting in no clear sustainable long-term strategy for integrated care and ‘start-stop’ policymaking, which is a significant barrier to investment decisions.

Deserve better

Community pharmacy and patients deserve better. Let’s not forget that it was Government policy to promote extended hour pharmacies. This led to thousands more pharmacies opening, which the Government says it will not now fund sufficiently – but still wants everyone to be open to avert a NHS winter crisis.

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