I thank the Minister for allowing me advance sight of his statement.
Community pharmacies play a crucial role in our health and social care system: indeed, 80% of patient contact in the NHS is in community pharmacies. The Government’s decision to press ahead with damaging cuts which represent a 12% cut for the rest of the year, on current levels, and a 7% cut in the following year will therefore cause widespread concern and dismay. The public petition that was launched when the funding cuts were first proposed became the largest petition ever on a healthcare issue. It now bears 2.2 million signatures. The message is clear: people want their community pharmacies to be protected.
In the face of unprecedented demands on health and social care services, the importance of local pharmacies is greater than ever. They help to safeguard vulnerable people and signpost them to other services; they are very important to carers; and, crucially, they reduce demand on GPs and out-of-hours services. Do Ministers not recognise the extent of the support that those pharmacies offer, and the impact that their loss will have on communities?
As the Minister said, the Government’s latest funding offer was rejected by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, because it was clear that there was little substantive difference between that settlement and their original proposal in December 2015, and that the outcome would be the same. Earlier this year the Minister’s predecessor, Alistair Burt, said that up to 3,000, or 25%, of community pharmacies could close, and clearly the thousands of remaining pharmacies could be forced to scale down their services. If the Minister does not agree with his predecessor, will he now tell us how many community pharmacies he expects to close as a result of the Government’s cuts? Pharmacies that do survive the cuts will be under significant pressure, which will result in job losses and service reduction. That is putting patient safety and welfare at risk.
The Government’s plans are not only deeply unpopular; they are short-sighted, and will hit the areas with the greatest health inequalities hardest. A study by Durham University has shown that pharmacy clusters occur most in areas of greater deprivation and need. Will the Minister reassure us that the areas of greatest deprivation will not lose pharmacies on which they rely, and will not be disproportionately hit by the cuts? I was not reassured by what he said in his statement.
The cuts will have a significant impact on older people, people with disabilities or long-term illnesses, and, I reiterate, carers, who do not have time to look after their own health and often do not even seek GP appointments. The Minister has said nothing today about releasing an impact assessment. Given that the effect of the cuts is likely to be substantial, with rural, remote and deprived areas most affected, when will we see an impact assessment to justify them?
Community pharmacies help to relieve pressure on our already overstretched health and social care services, and in recent years they have delivered more than 4% of savings for the NHS in cost reduction and quality improvement year on year.
It seems to me that Ministers are ignoring the conclusion of a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report showing that community pharmacies contribute a net value of £3 billion through just 12 of their services—not all of them; just 12. Therefore, if one in four community pharmacies were to close, that value would be lost and the cost to the NHS would be significantly increased. Has the Minister considered the long-term impact that that will have on other NHS services?
We know that there is concern in many parts of the healthcare sector about these proposals. Can the Minister reassure us that all parts of the health service, including NHS England, support the proposals? Earlier in the week, he said that no community would be left without a pharmacy, but he was then unable to say which pharmacies would close and where. Will he repeat the pledge that no community will be left without a pharmacy?
We recognise the need, as does the Minister, to integrate pharmacy services better with the rest of primary care, but introducing cuts on this scale to community pharmacy services will not improve health services—it will damage them.