Baroness Walmsley: Cuts to community pharmacies are a prescription for chaos
Last December the Government announced a £170m reduction in annual funding for community pharmacies. The details have not yet been published, although there are concerns that up to 3,000 community pharmacies may have to close. This week I asked the Government what assessment they have made of the impact of these closures on the people who rely on their local pharmacy, not just for filling their prescriptions, but for all sorts of other services.
Currently pharmacies are easy to access and form an important part of the local community and health provision. At the moment, 96% of the population can reach a pharmacy on foot or public transport within 20 minutes and we need to keep it that way. Rural areas are particularly susceptible to arbitrary closures. Although there will be some “access funds”, we still await details and many pharmacists and staff are concerned that their vital face-to-face services will not survive the cuts and the competition of on-line medicines.
Pharmacies are busy places. We make 1.6 million visits to community pharmacies every day and they have a crucial role to play in keeping people out of GP’s surgeries. They could do a great deal more if people understood that a visit to a pharmacy is better and quicker than waiting for a GP appointment. The NHS spends £2bn every year on GP consultations for conditions that could have been dealt with by pharmacy teams. So, at a time when GPs are under such pressure, with a hundred surgeries already refusing to take on any new patients, isn’t it crazy to cut those services that can ease their burden?
A&E departments are also under pressure. Pharmacists can often prevent A&E visits and hospital re-admissions, especially when they work closely with Care Homes and GPs to look after vulnerable old people. But this central role is at risk unless there is some management of which pharmacies close, if there really are too many. Currently, it is the survival of the fittest – and the fittest will probably be the big chains that provide hub and spoke medicine delivery. That may be cost-effective but it is not responsive to urgent or unusual needs.
The Government has the ambition to have a pharmacist in every GP practice. I support this plan but it will be a long time before it can be delivered, since there are only 400 post-graduate training places for young pharmacists to train to go into clinical practice. Even then, there will still be a need for easily accessible advice and medicines on the high street.
Then there is the role of pharmacies in helping local authorities deliver their public health responsibilities. What happens to medicine reviews, anti-smoking support, contraception advice, healthy weight advice and so on if pharmacies close? The implications for patient care, especially for vulnerable people, have not been properly considered and I plan to hold the Government to account for this until we get satisfactory answers.
Baroness Walmsley is the House of Lords Principal Health Spokesman for the Liberal Democrats