I thank the hon. Member for making that point. I was just about to quote those statistics myself, but I thank her for teeing up the next bit of what I would like to say.
As I understand it, the budget for community pharmacies is £2.6 billion—a significant amount of money but quite a small proportion of the NHS’s total budget. It stretches to cover some 11,500 community pharmacies, serving the majority of the population of the United Kingdom—about 56 million people. On average, each one serves about 5,000 people per month and dispenses 7,300 prescriptions.
In the last four years, as the hon. Member says, the funding for pharmacies has shrunk by a significant amount; I am quoted a figure of approximately £200 million. Tim and other pharmacists in my patch are concerned that there is now going to be significant additional pressure, and we have seen statistics to suggest that up to 3,000 pharmacies could close for good. That has not happened yet; these are threats. Some have closed, but the majority are still struggling on.
I believe that would be short-sighted in the extreme. I am sure the Minister agrees that a sustainable pharmacy sector is a critical part of the NHS network in this country because, as I said, it takes pressure off both A&E and GPs. We badly need it. Having used an independent community pharmacy myself, I know the added value of having somebody trusted to talk to, whether about a bunged-up ear because I swim too much—well, not at the moment—or about more serious concerns.
NHS pharmacies are ready and willing to support the test and trace programme—something I have knowledge of in my patch due to our experience trialling the app, which sadly was not taken further. They could help to ensure support for test and trace, for home testing kits, and certainly for the winter vaccination programme, which is likely to be of increased significance this year because of the potential for phase 2 of covid, which clearly we all hope does not happen.
There is strong public support for community pharmacies. A recent opinion poll showed that 81% hold a favourable view of pharmacies, 78% value a face-to-face relationship—I wish Members of this House had those sorts of approval ratings; we live in hope—and more than half want to see emergency covid funding turned into a permanent grant versus the significantly smaller amount who want to see it repaid.
Crucially, the public are ahead of the health bureaucracy in seeing the benefit of having this network of highly trained healthcare professionals in many communities in Britain; 84% say that the NHS should do more to make use of pharmacists’ skills. It does seem to be a bit of a wasted resource when we have people with so much skill and ability in dispensing medicine and in being the first port of call for many when they are feeling under the weather.
Some 71% of people think pharmacies should be able to expand their offering to take pressure off the NHS. I completely agree. I wonder how we can work towards that betterment, which is certainly in all our interests considering the relatively small amount of money compared with the overall NHS budget that goes towards pharmacies, specifically community pharmacies.
I will round up and let other Members speak, but may I tempt the Minister to talk about how she can support community pharmacies—the six in my patch but also the 11,500 across Britain? What can she say to reassure us that the financial support will be there? Losing independent pharmacies would be much more expensive in the long run than providing modest additional sums to ensure that we help keep their pharmacy businesses viable, especially during the covid period, when other elements of their business—the cash trade of the chemist—have clearly been declining. I very much look forward to her response.