Warm Words Are Not Enough for Community Pharmacy

In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began, the head of NHS England said in a letter that all providers must claim “actual and reasonable incremental costs” due to COVID-19, including additional staff and equipment.

It was unclear how community pharmacy would go about this, but at the time the Pharmacy Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) said it was in ‘complex and ongoing’ discussions with ministers to deal with the impact of COVID-19 on community pharmacy.

Around the same time, the Health Secretary touted community pharmacies as a ‘vital part of our NHS family’ and paid tribute to them as “the front line in this war against this virus” at one of the daily press briefings at number 10.

Pharmacies in England have received £6 million in additional funding to make deliveries to the most clinically vulnerable. In addition, funding of £370m from the end of the year has been advanced to address cash flow issues partly caused by unprecedented patient demand for medicines and the expense needed to continue operating for a pandemic – although on condition that it has to be paid back.

In an interview with The Pharmaceutical Journal in June 2020, Pharmacy Minister Jo Churchill said a “very strong” business case backed by “strong data” had been submitted to the Treasury for further funding to recognize the pressures facing community pharmacy was faced. But nearly three months later, community pharmacies are still waiting.

GP practices in England have been offered a ‘COVID Support Fund‘ from NHS England to help with the ‘legitimate extra costs’ of the pandemic borne by GP practice, which would be around £3 per patient. Why not pharmacies?

The latest statement from the PSNC reveals another case is before the Minister of Pharmacy for an ‘urgent increase’ in funding for community pharmacies in England. PSNC chief executive Simon Dukes said contractors shouldn’t ‘confuse a failure to strike quick deals with a lack of activity’, but any contractor reviewing progress so far would be forgiven for thinking the move principal goes in the opposite direction. .

Indeed, Dukes admits that although government ministers have “praised” community pharmacy throughout the pandemic, some “officials still question the value of pharmacies”. But this is not the case in other parts of the UK.

In Scotland, the vital role of community pharmacy during the pandemic was recognized with additional funding of £2.6 million in March. In Wales, although negotiated before the pandemic, additional funding of £18 million for community pharmacy has been announced over three years.

And there have been great innovations made in community pharmacy across the country in response to the pandemic.

But, at present, the NHS is asking community pharmacies across England to do even more to ease the pressure on the NHS, all within the current funding envelope – which is frozen for the next four years – and without acknowledgment of the extra expense and stress encountered during the first months of the pandemic.

Community pharmacies urged to undertake ‘biggest flu vaccination campaign ever’; expand the consultation service of community pharmacists; set up a new medicine discharge assistance service from January; and play a “massive role” in any COVID-19 vaccination program, whenever a vaccine arrives; as winter and a second peak of infections loom.

But that is unrealistic now that many community pharmacy teams in England are simply exhausted from mopping up demand elsewhere in the NHS and are already starting to cut back. The warm words of the ministers go no further: it is time the government put its money where it says. Otherwise, they could find that this ‘vital part of the NHS family’ will be missing when the health service needs its help most.

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