Press release: Government’s pharmacist strategy of robbing Peter to pay Paul will compromise patient access to medicines

Without action to address the pharmacist workforce crisis, there is a significant risk to patients’ access to care, medicines, and advice which will inevitably affect the elderly, vulnerable and those in areas with health inequalities. The CCA, the trade body representing almost 50% of the community pharmacy sector, is extremely concerned that there are not enough pharmacists or pharmacy technicians in the country to meet the needs of patients and the NHS.

An existing pharmacist workforce shortage has been exacerbated by COVID, Brexit and ongoing NHS reforms. In 2021, a perfect storm hit the pharmacist workforce. Following 18 months of working at a continuous high-pressure during the pandemic, pharmacy teams are exhausted. Covid and winter-related sickness absences are adding to the strain and overseas pharmacists are now also more difficult to attract to the UK workforce due to Brexit and Covid.

We have also seen the continued recruitment drive of pharmacists into the NHS’s Primary Care Networks (PCNs). Since 2019, 3,000 pharmacists have been recruited into PCNs, which is around 10% of the community pharmacist workforce. The NHS plans to recruit a total of 6,000 pharmacists in England by 2024, equivalent to nearly three full years of new pharmacists, with no concrete plans to actively encourage students to take up additional places at universities. The workforce crisis was confirmed earlier this year when pharmacists entered the Home Office’s Shortage Occupation List.

The effects of this recruitment drive have begun to bite in community pharmacies. In recent months many pharmacies have been unable to find a pharmacist during times of higher demand. Without a pharmacist on site, pharmacies cannot supply medicines prescribed by the NHS, provide services such as the flu jab, or give valuable advice. The shortage of pharmacists has also led to rapidly escalating employment costs which are impacting the viability of pharmacies in some areas.

In future, if pharmacies cannot find enough pharmacists, further closures, both temporary and permanent, will be unavoidable. This will have a devastating impact on local communities as it will be harder for patients to access vital medicines and advice from healthcare professionals.

The Government recently invested in the GP Winter Access Fund, which encourages GPs to refer some patients to community pharmacies to receive care. Whilst we are pleased to see additional financial support for some parts of primary care, we are concerned that this initiative means that workload is being moved away from where the NHS is recruiting pharmacists to, and into the very place where they are taking them from. This is akin to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In what became a hallmark of the Covid-19 response, pharmacies stayed open providing face to face care throughout the pandemic to meet the healthcare needs of their local communities. We now need the government to seriously reconsider its current healthcare plans to ensure that patients can continue to access professional advice, medicines, and care at their local pharmacy. The whole of primary care needs a strong pharmacist workforce, adequate investment, and a healthy pipeline of new pharmacists.

The Government’s current approach represents a short-sighted attempt to address GP pressures without regard to replenishing pharmacists in other parts of the primary care system, such as community pharmacy.

In the long-term, an efficient primary care model must be developed to enable community pharmacists to support Primary Care Networks and GPs, rather than the ‘whack-a-mole’ approach being currently employed. Ultimately, a failure of the Government to address the workforce crisis will compromise patients’ access to care, medicines, and advice.

Malcolm Harrison, CEO of the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) said:

“The Government needs to acknowledge the acute workforce crisis that community pharmacy is facing and urgently take action for all parts of primary care.

The pressures facing the pharmacist workforce, and the creation of new positions in the NHS, when insufficient additional pharmacists are being trained, is a significant threat to healthcare in England. Fundamentally, without action patient access to medicines is likely to suffer.”

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