I congratulate my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price on securing this debate and on being determined that it would not be a hot air debate but one in which we actually work together to find some solutions.
Although many GPs’ surgeries closed their doors at the start of the pandemic, pharmacies have stayed open and even increased their hours of operation in order to meet the extra demand for their services. They have been a lifeline for the elderly and vulnerable, delivering medicines to those shielding or self-isolating. Many pharmacies in Southend have also supported care homes, sourcing medication where there were shortages of end-of-life medicines. When needed, they have also assisted with the reuse of medicines in care homes under national protocols.
Working with local general practitioners, chemists are now processing the majority of prescriptions electronically, reducing the number of face-to-face visits that are required. The discharge medicines service has just rolled out to Southend pharmacies, so that they are able to see all the medicines that a patient has been given upon being discharged from hospital, which improves safety and reduces potential errors. Many pharmacies have also joined the vaccination programme. Their experience in handling large numbers of patients effectively has been vital in delivering the first jab to the elderly and clinically vulnerable.
Having visited a number of pharmacies in my constituency before the coronavirus outbreak, I am aware of the pride that they feel in serving their community and of their ambitions for the future. Frenchs Chemist in Leigh-on-Sea suggested running a phlebotomy clinic three days a week and installing a treatment room with ultrasound scanning facilities, so that many routine scans can be carried out without the need for a hospital visit. Derix Healthcare Pharmacy, also in Leigh-on-Sea, is keen to take on more work, such as producing blister packs on behalf of the hospital, which is a very time-consuming task, and has offered to perform medicine use reviews and other services currently carried out in hospitals, freeing up staff time on wards and in out-patient departments.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on liver health, I have worked closely with our brilliant secretariat, the Hepatitis C Trust, to promote the delivery of testing and treatment for hepatitis C in community settings. A report published by the APPG in 2018 showed that, in order to eliminate the disease, levels of testing and diagnosis needs to be much higher. Offering testing and treatment in community pharmacies presents an important opportunity to access at-risk groups who are already attending for other services. Hepatitis C is a major cause of liver cirrhosis and cancer, and in order to eliminate it as a public health concern by 2030, those who cannot be reached by traditional healthcare settings must be offered more help locally.
Of course, all this comes at a price, and many pharmacies are struggling to continue the level of service they currently offer. Coping with the pressure of additional demand during the covid-19 crisis has meant many extra costs in staffing and PPE and an increased cost of medicines. The advance payments made during the pandemic, which allowed them to cope with additional demand on their services, were welcome but will have to be paid back—a total of £370 million—putting pressure on pharmacies to cut services and opening hours. This is a real opportunity for our wonderful pharmacies to deliver even more services than they have been given the power to do at the moment.