Pharmacies system in danger of collapse, Steve Barclay warned

Pharmacy - James Manning/PA Wire
Pharmacy - James Manning/PA Wire

Pharmacies are running at a loss and the system is at risk of collapse, Steve Barclay has been warned.

A letter to the Health Secretary, signed by leading pharmaceutical experts including chiefs at Boots and Lloyds, reveals the problems the sector has as the NHS faces a difficult winter amid strikes, record waiting lists and staff shortages.

With the economy struggling, staff costs spiralling and real-term funding cuts, pharmacists are concerned that the system may collapse without a cash injection of around £400 million, improved recruitment, and boosted funding streams.

“The long-term attrition of 30 per cent real term funding cuts over the past seven years is now leading to serious degradation of services to patients,” the letter says.

“Many pharmacies are now dispensing at a loss and facing a serious cashflow crisis, which we fear if not addressed will rapidly move towards many permanent closures. We fear that once they start, closures will be hard to stop as the sector is now so fragile that other pharmacies would struggle to pick up the slack.

“We are deeply concerned that this will put medicine supply at risk, with serious consequences for the millions of people who rely on dispensed prescriptions every year.”

Janet Morrison, CEO of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) and co-signatory of the letter told The Telegraph that the current pressures on other aspects of the NHS are “undoubtedly having an impact on community pharmacies”.

“As other NHS services become harder to access, more and more people turn to their pharmacies for help,'' she said. “We saw this during the pandemic, when pharmacies acted as a really effective safety net for patients and the NHS.

“But that safety net is now at breaking point too – without urgent action, we believe temporary closures of pharmacies will turn into permanent ones and the next healthcare crisis will be the inability of some patients to access their prescription medicines.”

Around 90 per cent of pharmacy money comes from NHS contractual funding to provide various services but, as this becomes operationally more expensive, they cannot be passed on to the customer – unlike in other industries.

Staff costs now account for 84 per cent of pharmacist funding – up from 53 per cent in 2010 – as a result of shortages caused by workers being recruited to other areas of healthcare and locum costs subsequently soaring by 80 per cent.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Our five-year deal with the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee provides £2.6 billion a year to the sector, enabling pharmacies to provide services such as taking referrals from NHS 111 online, administering blood pressure checks, and managing routine oral contraception without a GP prescription. On top of this, we have announced a further £100 million investment in the sector to help support the NHS.

“There is good access to community pharmacies, with 80 per cent of people living within 20 minutes walking distance of one, and twice as many pharmacies in more deprived areas.”