It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I feel there will be a great deal of consensus over the course of this debate.
I have shared my experiences of my first job working in my uncle’s community pharmacy on numerous occasions in Parliament. Indeed, I secured a Westminster Hall debate on the role of community pharmacies in October 2019. I spoke of how there was never a dull moment in a pharmacy. I recalled the time a frantic mother handed me dead headlice taped to a piece of cardboard, and someone asking me to run a pregnancy test on a bottle of cough medicine before discreetly letting me know it was actually a urine sample and the bottle was the most secure way that she could think of getting it to the shop.
The lighter moments aside, what has always stayed with me from my time working evenings and weekends in a local chemist shop was that so often, particularly for older people, someone’s relationship with the pharmacist was the longest standing and most trusted relationship they had with any clinical professional. When we think about the pandemic, we think what an invaluable community asset pharmacies are, and I take this opportunity to thank all those who have worked so hard to keep pharmacy doors open during the most difficult times of this crisis.
Prior to the crisis, pharmacies had their budgets cut back in 2016, with a reduction from £2.8 billion in 2015-16 to £2.59 billion in 2017-18. That represented a 4% reduction in funding in 2016-17 and a further 3.4% reduction in 2017-18. When inflation is factored in, as well as all the services that pharmacies already offer free of charge—costs that they absorb—it dealt an almost fatal blow to pharmacies. The then Minister told the all-party parliamentary pharmacy group that he expected between 1,000 and 3,000 pharmacies to close as a result, because they would simply no longer be viable, with multiples and chains of pharmacies best placed to weather the cuts, and independent and more rural chemists left at a disadvantage.
That was in 2016 and it set the landscape going into the pandemic. When the pandemic started, these already underfunded pharmacies were called on to be a crucial element of the UK’s frontline response, dealing with a 20% rise in demand for medicines and a 35% increase in required prescriptions. They experienced a doubling in demand for home deliveries of medication and a tripling in calls from the public. According to the PSNC pharmacy advice audit, pharmacies have been providing healthcare advice to more than 600,000 people every week. We owe a great debt to these underfunded and overworked pharmacies and their teams, who went above and beyond to relieve pressures on our NHS.
I commend the work of the all-party parliamentary pharmacy group under the leadership of Jackie Doyle-Price for its detailed work on this issue. I ask the Government to reflect on the ask within its recent flash inquiry report. We need pharmacists—that has to be the bottom line—so why are we putting these perverse financial barriers in their way? They are providing a great deal of care, as well as social care, to those who most need it. We have to find ways of looking after them into the future.