Independent Pharmacies

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:16 pm on 13th July 2020.

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Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 9:16 pm, 13th July 2020

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Bob Seely for securing the debate and to the hon. Members who contributed to it. We are all pretty much in agreement about the value of our pharmacies. Our community pharmacies are an integral part of our healthcare system. We have often spoken in this Chamber and elsewhere about how assiduously my hon. Friend looks after the health needs of those on the Island, with its unique ecosystem.

As has been said, community pharmacies across the country, including those on the Isle of Wight, are at the very heart of our community. Everyone agrees that they play a vital role in providing medicines and health advice to all those who cross their threshold—Holly Lynch said she did that while at school. Many pharmacists have told me that during lockdown they have had to develop a different relationship with their customers, because the whole setting and how they advise has changed. Rather than having a friendly chat, they have had to help many of their older customers navigate their way through the new system. The role of pharmacies is more important than ever in the covid-19 pandemic. Their sensible approach has helped to spread the public health message. They are integral to the prevention agenda.

I say that because, although the pandemic continues to challenge all parts of the health and care system, local pharmacies have remained open throughout. They have truly been the frontline. They have adapted to the pandemic by making their businesses covid-secure. They have innovated and shown immense resilience in responding to the challenges brought about by the pandemic.

The Health and Social Care Secretary and I—indeed, all colleagues in Government—are hugely grateful for the unequivocal commitment shown by community pharmacies. I am immensely proud to be the pharmacy Minister. I want to take this opportunity, as I have done before, to thank all those who have gone above and beyond during this crisis, helping those in our community who have walked through the shop door because they are frightened or require assistance. Pharmacies have always been there.

As the House may recall, last July we agreed a landmark five-year deal, the community pharmacy contractual framework, which committed almost £13 billion to community pharmacy or about £2.6 billion a year. It is the joint vision for how community pharmacy will support delivery of the long-term plan. Community pharmacists are part of our community life, and independent pharmacists account for almost 40% of the market. They are integral to the success of delivering the five-year deal and supporting the NHS. As we have heard this evening, patients value the diversity of pharmacies and the different settings in which they interact with their communities.

Maintaining access to NHS pharmaceutical services continues to be a key priority for the Government. The pharmacy access scheme protects access in areas where there are fewer pharmacies and higher health needs, so that no area is left without access to local, physical NHS pharmaceutical services.

During this crisis, the Government have put in place a financial package to provide support to all businesses, including independent pharmacies. Under the NHS contractual arrangements, we have made available £370 million in advance payments to help pharmacies with their cash flow. We have also provided additional funding for the new medicine delivery service for shielded patients to ensure that the vulnerable get their medication, and covered the cost of bank holiday opening. We are increasing the reimbursement prices for the most commonly prescribed generic medicines by £15 million a month from June.

We have responded to concerns from the sector by pausing some work in order to prioritise day-to-day activities and enable an environment that provides space to do the day job safely and, importantly, supports the health and welfare of staff. That is particularly important given the high proportion of community pharmacy staff from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. For example, 43% of registered pharmacists come from such backgrounds. We need to provide the right environment to keep everybody working at their optimum level.

This year’s pharmacy quality scheme comprises of two parts: an essential element that focuses solely on covid-19 activities, including individual covid-19 risk assessments, and a second part that will be in the usual spirit of the scheme. I urge all community pharmacists to participate in this year’s pharmacy quality scheme, especially the essential element, which will reward community pharmacies for undertaking steps to keep patients and staff safe during the pandemic.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight will appreciate, we are in regular conversation with the pharmacy contractors’ negotiating body, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee. We have met stakeholders regularly throughout the pandemic to ensure we have that ongoing dialogue that is so important. We will continue to work closely with the PSNC, NHS England and NHS Improvement to consider what further support and funding contractors will need during the pandemic and as we move into the recovery phase.

We have just entered discussions on firm proposals for additional funding put forward by the Government to meet the extra costs incurred by pharmacists at the peak of the pandemic. To respond to this crisis, we have a need to reprioritise certain community pharmacy contractual framework services. The immediate challenge will be to restore those services and programmes planned for the 2020-21 period where we can do so and where it remains the right thing to do. I stress that we will work by talking to the profession, because this has been an extremely difficult time and, as everybody has said, pharmacists have responded amazingly to the demands that have been put on them.

There is also an opportunity to learn from the pandemic and facilitate changes that may have been more difficult previously. We will continue to build capacity and capability, test new services for potential future commissioning, and focus services on the areas that have the most impact on the population’s health. Community pharmacies have demonstrated how they can increase the uptake of flu vaccinations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said. That will be particularly important this winter, when we know that there will be increased uptake. I am keen for community pharmacies to do more in partnership with GPs in their local area and for them to be as one with their colleagues and treated like other members of the entire NHS family that we value so much. I sometimes feel that those in community pharmacies feel that perhaps we could go a little further in saying a big thank you to ensure that they feel part of the valued broader primary care network.

Isle of Wight community pharmacists are exceptional; indeed, in the past they have won awards for their work on the administration of hepatitis B and hepatitis C vaccines. We want to consider the role of community pharmacists in future vaccination programmes to maximise access.

The hon. Member for Halifax mentioned the anticipated loss of some 3,000 pharmacies; on this morning’s Zoom call with the National Pharmacy Association, the Secretary of State was clear that that would not happen on his watch and that any loss of pharmacies stopped when he arrived. Like me, he sees the value of community pharmacists. There are now 11,500 pharmacies throughout England, which is an uplift of some 12% since 2010.

I agree with my hon. Friend Paul Bristow that this period has shown how vital pharmacists are and the importance of the role that they play for us all.

The Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, which goes to the Lords next week, will introduce legislation that will pave the way for further consultation on what more the Government can do to support dispensing arrangements and a better skill mix in community pharmacy. With such a highly skilled workforce, if we can free up pharmacies to better use their skills for patient-facing services, helping to alleviate pressures not only on pharmacies but in primary care, that will help the whole sector and be a recognition of the high skill level that we have. We will help people, including those on the Isle of Wight, to adopt innovative practices, including the greater use of digital and technology. We will of course engage with the sector on any proposals that we make. Any regulations in this policy area would come before Parliament.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight again for securing this important debate. I know that the coming months will continue to be challenging for Tim and the other community pharmacists that my hon. Friend mentioned, but it is really important that they know quite how much they are valued by Members from all parties, but mostly by their communities. I am personally committed to continue to do all that I can to support community pharmacies, which are an essential part of our lives, our high streets and our NHS family.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.