The NHS has been accused of “poaching” pharmacy staff for general practice, as new figures show one in 20 pharmacies have closed since 2015.
Research by the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) found that 808 pharmacies closed permanently in England between 2015 and 2022.
Only 138 new ones opened in that time representing a net loss of 670 community pharmacies, the CCA said.
The figures mean one in 20 pharmacies across England have closed since 2015 - five per cent of the 11,600 active community pharmacies.
One in four of the closures took place in the most deprived areas of England, undermining the Government’s levelling up agenda, the CCA analysis also suggests.
NHS community pharmacy funding has fallen in real terms by around 25 per cent since 2015, despite total healthcare spending increasing, pharmacy groups claim.
But one of the most critical factors affecting pharmacy closures in the last two years is workforce, with vacancy rates doubling since 2017 and locum pay increasing by 85 per cent since 2020.
Since 2019 the NHS has been funding the recruitment of pharmacists into primary care posts to support GPs, according to the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee which promotes the interests of all NHS community pharmacies in England.
The practice is driving up staffing costs for community pharmacies to unmanageable levels, they claim.
Janet Morrison, the chief executive of PSNC, said: “While we understand and want to help relieve the pressure on our general practice colleagues, the NHS tactic of poaching community pharmacy staff to work in general practices is absurd and having very damaging consequences for community pharmacies.
“The policy is exacerbating pharmacy workforce problems which are leaving many pharmacies understaffed and forced to close their doors temporarily to patients.
“Solving one workforce problem by worsening another is short-sighted and spells disaster for pharmacies and the many millions of patients who rely on them every day, both for safe access to medicines and for healthcare advice.”
The CCA said the closures raise concerns that health inequalities in the most deprived communities in England will worsen as patients will struggle to access care or medical advice close to home.
The analysis comes after Therese Coffey, the Health Secretary, announced pharmacists will have an enhanced role to reduce reliance on GPs.
Community pharmacies will be able to manage and supply more medicines, without a GP prescription, she said.
Malcolm Harrison, the chief executive of the CCA, said: “Pharmacies continue to close disproportionately in areas of deprivation at a concerning rate. Closures will only worsen the health of deprived communities.
“The CCA is concerned that individuals may not be able to visit pharmacies at all to either get the medicines and advice they need or to be referred into other parts of the system.”
The funding model for community pharmacy is “broken”, Mr Harrison said, adding that the network is “no longer economically viable”.
“Without action, the country is sleepwalking towards an ever-worsening crisis in primary care – which threatens the entire ‘levelling up’ agenda for people in the most deprived communities,” he said.
The CCA analysed the postcodes of the pharmacy closures and compared them according to the Government’s 2019 Index of Multiple Deprivation.
Some 41 per cent of net permanent closures (278) had taken place in the top 20 per cent most deprived areas of England, the CCA found. Only nine per cent of net permanent closures occurred in the top 20 per cent least deprived areas.
The North and West Midlands were found to have lost the largest proportion of pharmacies, with 63 per cent in the most deprived areas concentrated in the North West, West Midlands, and Yorkshire and Humber.
Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s Charity Director, said: “Community pharmacies play such an important role for older people, and it’s worrying that in recent years closures seem to be clustered in poorer areas, where these precious resources are likely to be needed the most.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “There are more pharmacies today across England than there were 10 years ago, including twice as many pharmacies in more deprived areas.
“Our Plan for Patients sets out an additional £100 million investment to support community pharmacies to provide greater access to first-rate care.
“This is in addition to £2.5 billion already being spent to support community pharmacies to better integrate with the NHS and become the first port of call for minor illnesses.”
An NHS spokesman said: “There are more pharmacies in areas of higher deprivation and over 95% of people in the most deprived areas live within 1km of a pharmacy.
“The clinical role of pharmacy is developing and pharmacists are in high demand, so we are working closely with the sector on workforce planning for the future.”