Ministers are planning to allow hundreds of rural chemists to close across the country despite repeated assurances to MPs this would not happen, The Telegraph can disclose.
In private letters to Theresa May, last August Philip Hammond and Jeremy Hunt warned that pharmacies would have to close because of the cut in a subsidy worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year to the hard-pressed pharmacies.
The Cabinet ministers’ warnings appear to be at odds with ministers’ repeated public claims in Parliament and in official documents that no closures are likely.
They also appear to confirm that Mrs May is concerned about the plans and had to seek reassurances from Mr Hammond, the Chancellor, and Mr Hunt, the Health secretary.
Campaigners said the letters amounted to a "smoking gun" which laid bare the Government's indifference to saving rural pharmacies.
The concerns stems from a Government decision to cut a subsidy for pharmacies in rural and deprived areas by £208million in the 2017/18.
The cut has led to concerns that pharmacies in rural areas will close forcing the elderly to have to travel further for medicines.
According to letters disclosed in a High Court challenge to the plans, and seen by The Telegraph, Mr Hammond and Mr Hunt warned that the cut will result in the closure of pharmacies.
Mr Hunt told Mrs May on August 2 the cut would mean that “500-900 pharmacies will close”, in a letter that was copied to Mr Hammond.
Mr Hunt said: “We cannot know exactly how individual pharmacies will be affected by the funding reductions and there is a risk that some pharmacies may close as a result of these changes, although this has never been our objective.”
Mr Hammond went further in a second letter on August 11, telling Mrs May he supported the subsidy cut to what he described as an “inefficient and over-subsidised market” to move chemists “away away from the traditional bricks-and-mortar business model”.
He told the Prime Minister: “Longer-term I would like the community pharmacy market to follow trends we have witnessed in other retail markets.
“This might include a shift away from the traditional bricks-and-mortar business model towards scaled-up, innovative supply solutions employing digital technology, where Government expenditure is minimised.”
Last July Mrs May visited a chemist threatened with closure, in her Maidenhead constituency when she was campaigning to be Tory leader.
Oliver Picard, the owner of the chemist, then told his local newspaper that Mrs May “understands that pharmacies are part of the fabric of community life and will not simply wave through proposals to cut local pharmacies in favour of online alternatives”.
The Government announced revised plans in October that increased the number of chemists that can access a special fund from 900 to 1,300, only half as many as the up to 900 that Mr Hunt expected to close.
Weeks later Pharmacies minister David Mowat told MPs three times that no closures were likely. He told MPs on October 17: “We do not believe that community pharmacies will necessarily close as a result of these cuts.”
The department’s own impact assessment was based on a scenario “a scenario where no pharmacy closes” as a result of the cut.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said Mr Hunt should explain to MPs “why he was saying one thing to the Prime Minister while Mr Mowat was telling the House of Commons something different”.
He said: “Someone in Government needs to get a grip and clarify the future of these hundreds of community pharmacies, the staff who work in them, and the patients who depend upon their services.”
Labour MP Michael Dugher added: “This looks like serious duplicity by the Government with Mnisters have seemingly deliberately misleading the public about the impact of their cuts to community pharmacies that will pile even more pressure into a National Health Service in crisis.”
Ian Strachan, chairman of the National Phamacy Association, said: “This is a smoking gun. We have been warning for months that there are elements within Government that want to see the end of the community pharmacy network that has served so many patients so well for so long.
“Now the proof is there for all to see. The Treasury is clearly motivated by the notion that centralised medicines supply is cheaper, it is not in the slightest bit interested in the quality of patient care.”
A Government spokesman said: "This letter does not fully reflect enhanced protection we subsequently put in place for additional numbers of isolated pharmacies but as we have always said, the policy intention is not that pharmacies should be forced to close, which is exactly what the Health Secretary sets out.
“In fact, pharmacies are businesses that aren't completely reliant on income from government."
A source added: “These changes will improve the service offered to the public by introducing a quality-based payment and by further integrating pharmacy with primary care, thereby ensuring pharmacists’ valuable clinical skills are better used.”
What ministers said in private – and in public – about rural pharmacy closures
Jeremy Hunt, Health secretary, to Theresa May, Prime Minister: “We cannot know exactly how individual pharmacies will be affected by the funding reductions and there is a risk that some pharmacies may close as a result of these changes.”
Philip Hammond, Chancellor, to Mrs May: “Longer-term I would like the community pharmacy market to follow trends we have witnessed in other retail markets. This might include a shift away from the traditional bricks-and-mortar business model towards scaled-up, innovative supply solutions employing digital technology, where Government expenditure is minimised.”
David Mowat, Pharmacies minister to MPs: “We do not believe that community pharmacies will necessarily close as a result of these cuts.”
Mr Mowat to MPs: “It is possible that none will close.”
Department of Health impact assessment: “It is not the Government’s intention to reduce the number of community pharmacies.”
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