It is a pleasure to open this debate, which was prompted by a letter from an independent pharmacist in my constituency, Mr Tim Gibbs, who runs the Yarmouth pharmacy. Those who know it will know that it is not far from our beautiful harbour in Yarmouth and just opposite Yarmouth castle. I am delighted that this Minister is on the Front Bench, as I know she is a great supporter of pharmacies, pharmacists and indeed independent pharmacists. I am aware that the Health Secretary spoke at the National Pharmacy Association today. He spoke eloquently on the need for a major winter flu vaccination programme, which, clearly, we would welcome.
I will not speak for too long, as I am aware that one or two others wish to speak and it is getting late in the day, but I wish to cover some of the issues of concern to not only pharmacists, but independent pharmacists, who are especially important in isolated and rural communities, as other Members here, including those from places such as Cornwall, will testify. I have six independent pharmacists in my patch and all are highly valued. They include Tim in Yarmouth, Freshwater, Seaview, Ryde and Regent, which covers both East Cowes and Shanklin. I am grateful to Gary for taking the time to chat last week about some of the issues that have faced him.
Although many healthcare providers closed their doors during the covid pandemic, pharmacists stayed open, often at risk to themselves and their staff. For many people in our communities, NHS pharmacies were the visible face of healthcare on the high street. It is to their great credit that they stayed open and continued to serve their patients, often delivering medicines, at their own cost, to the homes of vulnerable and at-risk patients to make sure that those patients had what they needed. Pharmacy staff saw patients in person and ensured that the public—particularly vulnerable patients—had a consistent and safe supply of medicine. In doing so, they took considerable pressure off other elements of the health service, including GPs, who were often answering calls on the phone, and A&E.
However, I know from talking to Tim, Gary and other pharmacists in my patch that they face considerable financial insecurity on top of all the other problems. That is worse for pharmacists such as Tim who have to rely on over-the-counter trade. In Yarmouth, where there are a lot of yachts at weekends, he can usually make up the decline of income in other areas by selling soap and all the other good things that chemists sell, but in the covid period those sales took a significant hit. The same has been true for the independent pharmacies and many of the chemists in my patch. They have incurred many thousands of pounds in additional monthly costs from staying open and serving the community, and some of my independent pharmacists have even relied on volunteers.
Pharmacies have paid for the costs of installing screens, buying PPE—although I think the Isle of Wight Council helped Tim out after he requested it on a couple of occasions—hiring locums, paying overtime and absorbing the increases in the wholesale prices of medicines, which pharmacists are not allowed to pass on to their customers. That has created serious cash-flow problems.
I am very grateful, as we all are, that the Government provided £300 million in emergency loans to the sector at the outset of the crisis and have provided an additional £70 million since. Those are significant sums of money. The loans are, however, something of a sticking-plaster solution to cover the immediate covid costs that pharmacists have incurred and to make up for the longer-term shortfall. If pharmacists are left holding the bag for the costs that they have incurred through serving their communities in the past few months, many of them, including Tim, are worried that they will be forced to shut down in the next year or two. I believe that that would be a national shame. The ongoing uncertainty is an additional burden that pharmacists just do not need.
All pharmacists are valuable and they all play an important role. but because independent pharmacists are embedded in their community and represent a friendly, valued and, above all, trusted voice, they take pressure off A&E, GP surgeries and other areas of the NHS. On the Island, the number of GPs sits at roughly the average, but as the Minister well knows, we are struggling somewhat to make sure that there is an adequate supply of GPs to provide the primary care that this country needs.
I know that the Minister is a friend to pharmacists. Can she say something to reassure pharmacists—especially the independent ones—in my constituency and many others that the Government understand their valued and somewhat unique role, over and above chains of pharmacies, and that the Government wish to support them?