It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate with you as Chair, Sir Mark. I thank my hon. Friend Peter Aldous for securing this important debate on community pharmacies, which are a crucial part of our healthcare ecosystem. I also thank him for his thorough explanation of the current state of community pharmacies and their needs.
I am often reminded that when we feel unwell or something has gone a bit wrong, our first point of call is often to walk into a pharmacy to get advice, support and medicine. Somebody there can put one’s mind at ease. Those who are vulnerable or elderly can also get their medicines delivered to them, which adds to the wellbeing of the local community. However, despite community pharmacies’ immense importance, they face huge challenges. Increasing demands and ongoing pressures are threatening their sustainability. Tatton currently has a healthy number of local pharmacies—18— supporting nearly 70,000 residents. However, pharmacies are disappearing across the country—and in Tatton, too. Government figures show a decrease of 222 between December 2022 and June 2023. The reasons for those closures include inadequate funding, rising operational costs and difficulty in recruiting and retaining community pharmacists.
Tatton community pharmacist Lee Williams, along with his wife and fellow pharmacist Caroline, were two of the first constituents I met at their pharmacy in Knutsford when I became the MP for Tatton back in 2017. They have since had to close their pharmacy. Lee explained to me that, despite it being a busy community pharmacy and having a good reputation—I can vouch for that, as I went there, too—they had very much a hand-to-mouth existence as funding fell and things such as rent, utilities and wages increased, squeezing their profit margin to the point where their business became unviable and the only thing they could do to safeguard their 12 years of tireless work was to sell it. It was a sad day for them, because their dream was for the two of them, married, running this community pharmacy and supporting the local community, but it had become abundantly clear to them for some time that the only way for such pharmacies to exist was to find efficiencies through having multiple branches. But now, even the large multiple retailers such as Lloyds and Rowlands have had to sell off their community stores as they move to remote delivery and go online in an attempt to become profitable. Even they cannot make community pharmacies work.
Adding to the problem of underfunding is, as we have heard, a shortage of medicines, which often results in community pharmacists dispensing medicines at a loss. Even when the NHS decides to increase the price it is willing to reimburse pharmacists for those medicines, it often comes after weeks of pharmacists gambling on what price they will have to pay, which creates huge uncertainty for them and their businesses. Ironically, it is the very low prices that the NHS is willing to pay that drive the shortages. If a manufacturer can sell those medicines for a higher price in other countries, it will prioritise those markets over our own. Community pharmacists find that their staff, in their role as pharmacists, are spending a lot of their time trying to find stock, on top of their crippling workload.
Community pharmacy is therefore at a low—the pharmacists would say an all-time low—which corresponds to much of the results of Community Pharmacy England’s 2023 pressures survey. It found that 92% of pharmacies are dealing with medicine supply issues daily, which was an increase from 67% in 2022; 97% of pharmacy owners reported significant increases in wholesaler and medicine supply issues; 81% of pharmacy staff said they were “struggling to cope” with the significant increase in workload; and 84% had experienced aggression from patients due to medicine supply issues. Worse—if things could be worse—pharmacists face more abuse from the public because of drug shortages.
To keep our community pharmacies afloat, Lee Williams advocates a complete overhaul of how community pharmacies are viewed and remunerated. I therefore welcome the Government’s announcement of £645 million of new funding for Pharmacy First. The Government realise that things need to be done. Much has been done but more needs to be done, and they need to pursue that as well as they can. We can say that with our Prime Minister as an advocate. However, in the light of the first-hand experience of my constituents that I have just shared and those survey results, how is the Minister ensuring the security and consistency of supply of medicines? How will the Government compensate pharmacies for the extra costs of offering additional services such as annual health checks, which require more skilled staff? I appreciate the difficulty of finding more funding for the sector, but I know that the Government will be looking to do that, so will the Minister explain how? Local pharmacies want to be at the heart of the health sector and take more of the workload off the NHS, but in order to do that they need to be adequately recompensed. They provide a vital service, and I know that they want to do even more.