10 July 2020

The public have got it right: it’s time to back our pharmacies

By Paul Bristow

Many professions have stepped up during the current health emergency, with healthcare workers in particular rightly applauded across the country for their service.

Yet there is another group who have gone beyond what is expected of them, with far less recognition. These professionals remained open to the public, as associated service providers shut their doors; they have extended their opening hours; they have battled price hikes; they have offered new community services, like safe spaces for those suffering domestic abuse; and much, much more.

These people are pharmacists. In their response to the pandemic, they have drastically changed the scope of what they do. Pharmacists are also providing more medical advice and guidance than usual, often to those who are hesitant to use other medical facilities.

This effort has not gone unnoticed by the public. New polling from the National Pharmacy Association shows huge support, with 81% of respondents backing pharmacists – level with doctors and nurses – and 89% saying that pharmacies are playing an essential role in the fight against Covid-19.

Strikingly, the polling shows that 63% of the public visited a pharmacy during lockdown. The public also says they would be as likely to use a pharmacy as a GP surgery for a Covid-19 vaccine. Given this support, pharmacies are well-placed to have a significant role in any future vaccination programme.

Even before the pandemic, they were helping to deliver important health services and public health schemes. This hasn’t been reciprocated to the extent they deserve. Pharmacists have not felt supported through recent challenges and pressures, like the Community Pharmacy Contractual Framework (CPCF) five-year deal, which came into effect last summer.

The chairman of the National Pharmacy Association, Andrew Lane, was fairly blunt when discussing the CPCF last summer:

“… let’s be clear that the core funding for England’s pharmacies announced in July for the next five years is very unlikely to be enough to achieve the transformational improvements the NHS and pharmacists would like to see.  For some pharmacies, it won’t even be enough to keep the doors open, unless other substantial sources of income can be found.”

The sector often feels like it is struggling stay afloat, while being asked to shoulder even more responsibility and having to battle against drug price hikes.

I am proud of the way the Government has increased funding for the NHS and provided vital support and resources during the coronavirus emergency. The pharmacy industry needs its fair share. There is only so much we can ask of practitioners without providing for them.

At the same time, pharmacies are a lynchpin of our high streets. Retail has severe challenges, exacerbated by the lockdown, social distancing and the increase in online shopping. Pharmacies help drive footfall and should be secure, rather than struggling to be viable themselves.

So what can be done? The industry is calling for parity with others delivering healthcare. Proper integration could be the first step towards pharmacies becoming neighbourhood health and wellbeing centres, with the face-to-face advice that the public values. The polling shows 74% of the public are keen on this idea. In the mid to long term, this means expansion of services to allow more consultation and facetime with medically trained staff.

Right now, we need a solution on funding. I know the NPA wants to covert the loan to pharmacists at the start of the pandemic into a grant, which should certainly be considered. Above all, practitioners need clarity and to avoid any further financial hardship. 

MPs tend not to know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is the son of a pharmacist. There is no lack of appreciation for the sector in 11 Downing Street, just as there is plenty from the public.

Given the support and help he has provided for so many, I am sure that pharmacies will get a hearing in the coming months. They have earned it.

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Paul Bristow is MP for Peterborough and a member of the Health Select Committee.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.