It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price for securing this important debate.
The pandemic has shone a light on some of the more extreme challenges that we face as a society, but it has also highlighted the role of some of the institutions that support our communities—quietly, day in and day out. They are there for advice and support and offer a friendly and welcome face to those who are not reassured by going through online channels. Some people want a relationship but do not want to trouble their GP, and community pharmacies fill that role. These institutions have long been at the heart of all our constituencies, offering so much more than just prescriptions.
It would be remiss of me not to mention a few of the local pharmacies in my community and the incredible work that they have done and continue to do as part of the NHS family. Cohens, Coward’s and Murray’s, among others, are Furness institutions that have been remarkable in the support they have offered the community over the past year. Not only have pharmacies remained open over the past year; they are now supporting the vaccination programme.
A local pharmacist, Ben Merriman, was out vaccinating in Millom yesterday. I was told this morning of one pharmacist who was doing the same and, at the end of a very long day, found that their final patient was needle-phobic. It took an hour of gentle persuasion to get that final needle into the patient’s arm, which shows in one simple act the generosity and forbearance of the community pharmacist. This is a sector that we need to nurture and support, especially now.
Let us be honest: community pharmacies are struggling. While they have never been busier—significantly busy at the moment—90% of their business is pharmacy work and not retail, and that part of their business has dropped off. They have also seen a significant increase in their workload as the number of consultations they have taken on has increased since the start of the pandemic. Some of that is due to the approachability of community pharmacies, and some of it is due to word of mouth. If someone has had a good service, they are more than likely to tell their friends and family.
The Government’s support for this arm of the NHS is welcome, and the £370 million helped to deal with some of the immediate cash-flow issues at the start of the pandemic. I am sure my hon. Friend will continue to engage with the PSNC to ensure that this vital arm of the NHS has the support that it needs to stay afloat. Ultimately, if pharmacies close—that is what is happening now and it will continue at a faster rate if it is allowed to progress—the patients of Furness and those in constituencies around the country, along with the rest of the NHS, will suffer.
No one could have predicted the pandemic and the massive impact that it would have on the NHS, the Exchequer and the country as a whole, but pharmacies were already under massive financial strain before this. I have already lost one pharmacy in Barrow and several others have cut their hours because of financial cutbacks. It is worth looking at where the bulk of pharmacy closures have taken place in the past four years. The vast majority sit in the most deprived areas of our country, where we need to level up healthcare the most. Squaring that circle is the challenge that my hon. Friends in the Treasury face—one that they are no doubt alive to.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock said when she opened the debate, community pharmacies are the front door to the NHS. We need to make sure that that door stays firmly open.