Sunak’s budget was a blow to pharmacies

Opinion

Sunak’s budget was a blow to pharmacies

The chancellor visiting a pharmacy last autumn

Hands up those who were surprised pharmacy funding wasn’t even mentioned in the Chancellor’s budget. What options are left to the sector, asks PM’s deputy editor Arthur Walsh 

“A slap in the face.” That’s how Phoenix UK managing director Steve Anderson summed up a Government budget that made no mention of the plight pharmacies in England find themselves in.

If contractors were hoping chancellor Rishi Sunak would use his budget to write off the Government’s Covid-19 advance funding against the costs they have borne – £400m and counting, according to PSNC estimates – they will have been sorely disappointed. 

Those in a more charitable mood might describe this as an unfortunate oversight, but most view it as baked-in policy that threatens pharmacies. 

The £370m loan is no small sum but pales in comparison to the £22bn thrown at Test and Trace, and clawing it back will lead to serious financial pain. That pain is already being felt in the most deprived parts of the country, which have suffered 30 per cent of the 200 pharmacy closures in 2020. 

In one of many grim statements over the past few months, PSNC chief Simon Dukes urged ministers to avoid taking a simplistic view on pharmacy ‘clusters’. “Yes, there are more pharmacies in deprived areas but not when adjusted for population,” he said. “And more money is spent on pharmaceutical services here because there are greater health needs.” 

He described the Government’s budget as “exasperating” and failing to uphold basic principles of fairness. As the Treasury digs its heels in, a frustrated PSNC is going increasingly public on what by convention are closed discussions, briefing national newspapers on the intransigence of Government officials and lobbying MPs to raise the matter in Parliament.

What PSNC has not done is raise the spectre of industrial action, although a (perhaps overblown) piece in the Guardian suggests some desperate independents have considered this as a last resort.

A sector-wide strike seems dangerous and far-fetched – as well as interrupting a vital patient service, pressing the nuclear button could breach both the NHS contract and GPhC standards, potentially making pharmacies more vulnerable rather than less – but the fact it is even being discussed should concern all of us. Ministers would do well to remember that Northern Ireland’s long-suffering pharmacists only called off their industrial action due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sympathetic

Hope may not be lost entirely. Matt Hancock is viewed as one of the most sympathetic health secretaries pharmacy has had in decades, and some Conservative MPs – notably APPG chair Jackie Doyle-Price – have voiced their support for cancelling the £370m debt. She points out the disconnect between offering other businesses a furlough lifeline while squeezing NHS pharmacies.

However, it is the Treasury and NHS England that will have the last say. If PSNC cannot persuade its friends in Parliament to apply pressure where it is needed, that figure of 200 recent closures will quickly go up even further.

What do you think PSNC should do next? Email: pm@1530.com

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