It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark.
I congratulate Peter Aldous on securing this important and timely debate. I say “timely”, because only last week I delivered a petition to Parliament on this very subject, with the support of hundreds of people in my constituency. I know the strength of feeling across Bradford South on this issue, and about the value people place on community pharmacies.
I speak in defence of funding for our community pharmacies’ core services, which have been cut in real terms in recent years. Furthermore, I reiterate the point made by my right hon. Friend Sir George Howarth that our remarks cover many of the same areas, because they are so important to our constituents.
Community pharmacies are essential pillars of our national health service. The Government’s independent review described the open secret that community pharmacies are an “under-utilised resource”. As many of my constituents have put it to me, they are far more than just a place to get medicines; they are part of the very fabric of our local community. They are valued. Community pharmacies offer vital, immediate face-to-face services, often supplementing GP services, though without some of the vital resources that they need and deserve. When this country faced the covid pandemic, community pharmacies were there for us all. They stepped up bravely, maintained access to vital medicines, provided healthcare advice and delivered a record number of vaccinations. Now is the time to both thank them and show them that we value our community pharmacies, and not to abandon them to what one of my local chemists described to me as “funding starvation”.
After 13 years of under-investment, the NHS is at breaking point, and pharmacies are suffering from lack of funding. More than 700 pharmacies closed permanently between 2015 and 2022, and over 40% of these closures took place in the 20% most deprived areas of the country—cuts, yet again, where services are most acutely needed. In the words of one of my Bradford South chemists, James Currie, this
“is yet another clear demonstration by this Government of their detachment from the realities and needs of the communities we serve.”
Pressures on pharmacies have been worsened by a workforce crisis, with an estimated shortfall of 3,000 community pharmacists in England. I will be grateful if the Minister clarifies how the additional roles reimbursement scheme will be “carefully managed” to ensure that we are able to recruit, train and, importantly, retain the pharmacists we so desperately need. We know that pharmacy funding was cut by 30% in real terms between 2015 and the beginning of this year. More and more work is now being piled on our community pharmacies, without adequate additional resources—a familiar pattern for our public services in the UK today. That has created a serious funding black hole, with an annual shortfall in England of an estimated £67,000 per pharmacy.
The pattern of reckless under-investment is simply not sustainable, so it was welcome news that NHS England’s delivery plan for recovering access to primary care said that further funds will be devoted to community pharmacies to expand their services. The new Pharmacy First common conditions service is a strong step towards easing pressures on GP services, but pharmacies are already overstretched and support for their delivery of core services is still inadequate. I ask the Minister to clarify the extent to which the additional investment will be earmarked for addressing existing pressures on core services.
In preparing for the debate, I found it useful to look back at the Government’s independent review of community pharmacies, published seven years ago. In the report, it was made clear that community pharmacies would be urgently required to help deal with
“immediate financial and operational pressures” in the wider health service. Seven years later, however, the NHS is still struggling to deal with an historic backlog. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members present will recognise that community pharmacies are part of the wider solution to this very serious problem.
It is high time that we broke the cycle of crisis after crisis, followed by rushed solutions. Fair funding for community pharmacies will not only help support the local communities they serve, but strengthen the wider national health service and enable a vital and much-needed “prevention first” approach.