Taiwo Owatemi MP knows better than most the crisis threatening England’s independent community pharmacies.
Some 670 of these often family-run businesses have had to close since 2015, with predictions that many more could shut by 2024. Last week the Mail launched a campaign to rescue them from mass financial collapse.
Ms Owatemi is herself is a qualified pharmacist, and has worked in pharmacies as well as at a cancer unit in Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust before becoming the Labour MP for Coventry North West in 2019 (she still volunteers at her local hospital as a cancer pharmacist).
And as chair of the All-Party Pharmacy Group (APPG), she leads a committee of cross-party politicians who share the Mail’s alarm at the desperate plight of England’s 6,600 family-run independent shops — and the local customers who depend on them — and she welcomes our campaign.
Making a huge difference: Becky Elmes, manager of Ferndown Pharmacy, Dorset, is always there for her customers
‘From working in small independent shops, I know that these pharmacists’ main problems stem from the fact that there is high inflation, which means the costs of drugs, staff and energy have all increased significantly,’ she says.
‘Yet the pharmacists’ pay agreement has not been updated in the past seven years. This means they simply aren’t making enough money to survive.’
Ms Owatemi told Good Health: ‘I’m very grateful for the Mail for picking up this issue. Currently, there is a desperate lack of recognition of the crisis facing community pharmacists.’
We are asking Mail readers to help by writing to their local MP (see template letter below) about a problem that has already struck a chord with many.
As you have told us, these independent community pharmacists provide not just prescriptions, advice and practical health support but also a vital point of human contact for many people. And they know their customers well — some have served generations of the same families.
That personal contact means people trust and rely on them. Since we launched our campaign you’ve contacted us with your stories showing just how vital a community service independent pharmacists provide.
Margaret White’s story was typical. Writing about her ‘brilliant’ local pharmacy in Tamworth, Staffordshire, she said: ‘Having been unable to even speak to a doctor four times in the past year, I went to my local pharmacy each time, and with only a five-minute wait had a private consultation with my pharmacist who was in three cases able to help with over-the-counter medication and put my mind at rest (the fourth time urging me to persist in seeing my GP).
‘We would really miss our pharmacy if they closed. Thank you the Mail for highlighting this.’
Tom Rogers said that his 94-year-old mother’s pharmacy in a small town in Kent has ‘corrected errors made by the GP practice’, and ‘the staff are always helpful and polite and they deliver her medication to her flat.
‘Without their help, life for her and her family would be so much more stressful as they try to manage her health from a distance. Having experienced service from one of the big chains where anonymous staff have little interest in their customers, I support the Daily Mail’s initiative.’
Another, a long-retired pharmacist himself, said: ‘I strongly support your campaign. If nothing is done, it will be the poor, sick and disadvantaged who rely on their local chemist who will suffer. Our Prime Minister, as the son of a community pharmacist, must be all too aware of the crisis. Time to act.’
At the heart of the crisis is the funding deal from the Government, last negotiated with the community pharmacists’ representative body, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) in 2015.
This froze their remuneration for dispensing to £1.27 per item until its scheduled date for re-negotiation in 2024. But inflation and rising costs mean it actually costs pharmacists significantly more than that to dispense — Isle of Wight pharmacist Tim Gibbs told us last week that it’s more like £2. Since 2015, pharmacy funding has been cut by a quarter in real terms, an analysis by Ernst & Young shows. ‘Financially, so much has changed since 2015,’ says Ms Owatemi. ‘The deal is out of date and renegotiation needs to be brought forward to now.’
With GPs hard-pressed to see patients, she also wants to see pharmacies in England being paid to provide more services, such as vaccinations (only some NHS commissioners fund this, others leave it to GP services instead to take on this task).
‘To meet the health needs of the nation, we need to harness the skills of our community pharmacy workforce fully. Independent pharmacists over the years have developed close relationships with local people and understand their individual needs,’ says Ms Owatemi.
And getting pharmacists to do more would save the NHS money. Evidence cited by the APPG says that they could cut by 53 per cent the usual cost of a patient seeing their GP for minor ailments.
But none of this is going to be possible if these pharmacists are going out of business. ‘The Government doesn’t seem to understand the sector’s problems,’ says Ms Owatemi. ‘That doesn’t seem to have changed even though Rishi Sunak’s own mother was an independent pharmacist in Southampton and the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was health secretary.’
Last week the PSNC, which represents independent community pharmacy owners in England, launched a four-point plan to save them from extinction. As well as an immediate increase in funding — ‘to prevent their collapse and to get through this winter’ — it wants to see community pharmacists freed from unnecessary form-filling that robs pharmacists of precious time at a time when many are having to cut their opening hours because of shortages of increasingly expensive qualified staff.
The Government should also urgently fund independent community pharmacies to offer clinical services to people with long-term conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and respiratory disease.
It points out that community pharmacies now provide customers with around 65 million ‘informal consultations’ each year, though there’s no NHS payment allocated for this.
As well as helping people with such chronic illnesses, the PSNC says the Government should pay pharmacies to encourage healthy habits such as weight loss and smoking cessation to prevent people developing lifestyle-related illnesses in the first place. To support such developments fully, the organisation is calling for the Government to fund a complete ‘pharmacy first’ service across England, as is already operating in Scotland and Wales, where community pharmacy shops are paid to offer walk-in consultations for patients with minor conditions and to prescribe medications to treat minor health concerns such as skin infections, cystitis and allergies.
Zoe Long, the PSNC’s director of communications, told Good Health: ‘Community pharmacies face immense, unsustainable operational and financial pressures. This is not acceptable.’
Other organisations have also welcomed the Mail’s campaign.
Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, which represents pharmacy chains, told Good Health: ‘Research shows that communities love their pharmacies.
‘Increasingly, we’re a first port of call for health advice — not just for the dispensing of medicines.
‘We’re trusted and reliable. This is why the Daily Mail campaign is so welcome and vital — we must prevent them from closing.’
Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association, the trade association for large pharmacy operators, said: ‘The Mail’s campaign to save local pharmacies is doing an incredible job of highlighting the worrying impact of pharmacy closures caused by underfunding by the NHS and a shortage of pharmacists.
‘Without action, the country is sleepwalking towards an ever-worsening crisis in primary care. Pharmacies did their bit during the pandemic [by staying open during lockdown]. It’s now time for the Government to deliver for pharmacies and the patients they serve, by fully funding the supply of NHS medicines and producing a comprehensive pharmacy workforce plan.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told Good Health: ‘Community pharmacies play a vital role in supporting patients across the country, helping to ease pressures on GPs and free up time for appointments.
‘We commit almost £2.6 billion annually to support their vital work and improve integration in the NHS.’
Get your MP involved
Use this letter as a template to write to your MP to help save our local pharmacists
Dear [YOUR MP’s NAME]* ……………………………………
My name is [YOUR NAME]…………………………………….
and I am a constituent in [YOUR CONSTITUENCY] …………………………………………
I am contacting you because of my concerns about the future of an essential healthcare provider in our community.
Our independent community pharmacies are a vital lifeline, providing essential health and social care services to local residents, as well as helping reduce the pressure on GPs and A&E departments.
And yet independent community pharmacists are in crisis — already around one in ten has gone out of business since 2015 and a third of family-owned pharmacies in England are no longer financially viable, and many could soon be forced to shut their doors.
This is because the payment rates set under the NHS contract for community pharmacies have not been increased since 2015, despite soaring inflation and spiralling drug prices.
We must support our local independent pharmacies. As a matter of urgency, please will you ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to take action to save this essential community service before it disappears.
Yours sincerely, [YOUR NAME]
Beating heart of community health — that even opens on Sundays
‘The idea of this place closing leaves me full of fear,’ says Ian Smith, 75, about the Ferndown Pharmacy that’s just a mile from his home.
As well as arthritis of the spine and high blood pressure, he’s had a ‘horrendous’ seizure that dislocated both arms, so getting his regular supply of medication is vital.
But the pharmacy means more to him than that, says the retired IT worker who lives with wife Mo, 69, in Ferndown, Dorset — the staff are a community lifeline.
Even though it’s a small, independently-run chemist, it is open 7am until 11pm six days a week — plus a half day on Sundays.
‘A lot of people can’t get there during working hours, and it’s amazing they offer this, it gives you such peace of mind,’ says Ian.
‘They go out of their way to know their customers, and if there’s a problem with the supply of your tablets, Becky [Elmes, the pharmacist manager] moves heaven and earth to help,’ he says.
During the nationwide HRT shortage this year, Ian went to collect his wife’s prescription only to discover it wasn’t in stock.
‘Becky said she’d ring round to try to source it — and the next day called to say she’d had success. It was amazing given that we’d heard of so many others elsewhere going weeks or more without their HRT.’ Ian adds: ‘It isn’t just pharmacy — it’s part of the community. One Christmas Becky dressed up in a Santa suit and offered everyone who came in a hug — there was such a lovely atmosphere.’
Becky, 42, who has run the pharmacy for the past 14 years with husband Tim, 54, one of the pharmacists, says they ‘have put everything’ into keeping the service ‘personal’, making an effort to get to know customers and keeping the pharmacy going ‘despite funding payments not keeping up with overheads and really bad drug shortages’ — whether that means working round the clock, offering a free van delivery service or just taking time to talk to customers.
But she lives in fear that the business they built from scratch will have to shut because of the current climate.
‘There is a risk we will have to close — the accounts don’t look good — but we’ll try and battle through for as long as can,’ she says.
If they did have to close, it would be a big loss locally, not least as they already take up a lot of slack from the GPs’ workload.
Ian says that Ferndown’s relatively large older population especially benefits from the personal approach and would suffer badly.
‘There are some people for whom the pharmacy is their only social contact some days.
‘Whenever I go in there’s someone chatting away with staff — they make time for you and it’s absolutely wonderful. You don’t get the same atmosphere in these big chains.
‘It’s easy to forget how personal a service we’re getting at Ferndown: On the rare occasions when I have had to go to one of the chains, it’s a totally different experience — and my peace of mind vanishes.’
Interview by Lucy Elkins