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Jo Churchill: DH committed to Matt Hancock’s vision for pharmacy

Pharmacy minister Jo Churchill has said that the government is committed to a vision of pharmacy as being “at the heart of primary care”, despite a change in health secretary.

Asked by the National Pharmacy Association’s (NPA) chief executive Mark Lyonette at today’s (July 5) NPA conference whether the new health secretary Sajid Javid shared his predecessor Matt Hancock’s vision of pharmacy as being the first port of call for primary care, Ms Churchill responded that “as a government we are committed to it”.

“I know already the new secretary of state and I have had conversations about pharmacy and its value to the system, so I’m sure that commitment is there,” she said.

Even on the backbenches, “you will still have a champion there in [Mr Hancock] for pharmacy”, Ms Churchill added.

However, “we need to do more to remind NHS England and other parts of our health [system] that pharmacists are medical professionals”, she admitted.

“I still think there are too many in the health establishment that see pharmacists as glorified retailers, and you most certainly are not.”

“Difficult discussions” with Treasury over COVID-19 funding

Ms Churchill revealed that there had been “some difficult discussions with [the] Treasury” to secure the recent deal around the pharmacy sector’s COVID-19-related costs.

Under the agreement, pharmacies will still have to repay the £370 million advance payment it received last year to help pharmacies cope with cashflow pressures during the pandemic, but can claim for other COVID-19-related expenditures.

The pharmacy minister said she was “aware of the frustration that the delay on this announcement has caused”, but that she was “grateful for the patience” pharmacists had shown. The new offer is “a significant improvement on the previous offer”, she insisted.

“Community pharmacies are very well placed to do more on public health and prevention, and importantly this can help level up the country, especially in the area of health, which we know has such an impact on people’s life chances, the work they do and so on,” she told the conference, adding that “we need a network of financially stable community pharmacies to do that”.

Asked by C+D what the government was doing to maintain financially stable pharmacies at a time when many are closing, chair of the all-party pharmacy group (APPG) Jackie Doyle-Price said that ministers were “playing catch-up”.

“We as politicians and ministers are giving a very clear message about the value [of pharmacy], but in terms of sustainability, a lot of this is [the] legacy of previous financial arrangements and agreements,” she replied.

More commissioned services with fewer pharmacists?

Looking towards the next funding deal for pharmacy – which is currently under negotiation between the government, NHS England and the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee – Ms Churchill said she hoped “we can introduce more services [into the funding contract] and embed the ones that are already introduced”.

Asked how the government plans to introduce new services when there is a reported national shortage of pharmacists, Ms Doyle-Price explained the issue was something that Ms Churchill was “acutely aware of”, having been the first person to speak to the APPG chair about it.

“You don’t attract people into a career stream unless they can see a future,” Ms Doyle-Price said. “Obviously, a lot of the noise that we’re hearing about the sector, about closures and so on, that isn’t going to attract people either.”

“I am very concerned about recruitment, retention and professional development of the profession. Really, we do need to make sure that we are championing and valuing the skills and capabilities if we are to encourage people to look at pharmacy as a career option,” Ms Doyle-Price said during her conference session.

Ms Churchill also said she “would really like to see the number of referrals increasing significantly” when it came to the Community Pharmacist Consultation Service (CPCS).

Asked about the reported issues of low CPCS referrals from GP surgeries, Ms Churchill said there was a need to “encourage people to think pharmacy first”.

The COVID-19 pandemic had had an impact on the roll out of the CPCS programme, Ms Churchill suggested, but added: “We need GP practices to use the referral route more because we know that [it is] only by treating that primary care family as a family and using the skills of all the teams, […] that we can help the sort of volume and the sort of numbers of individuals who are seeking healthcare advice, assistance and so on.”

Pharmacies’ role in COVID-19 vaccinations

The pharmacy minister said that by current estimates, pharmacy-led COVID-19 vaccination sites are doing around 600,000 jabs a week, but added that “I expect that the number…will go up significantly”.

“We must use community pharmacy to help the NHS and the nation recover from COVID-19, and that includes supporting the COVID-19 and flu vaccination programmes,” Ms Churchill said.

NHS England and NHS Improvement is planning to commission a further 1,000 pharmacy-led COVID-19 vaccination sites in the run-up to September to help deliver booster jabs, it said last week.

Ms Churchill also noted a recent conversation with Nadhim Zahawi, the minister for the COVID-19 vaccination programme. “He too recognises the enormous value that pharmacy has brought and the further value it can bring to the programme,” Ms Churchill said.

“I want pharmacies to do more [COVID-19] vaccines and flu vaccines. Arguably, you are incredibly well-placed to do both.”

Pharmacies went “above and beyond” during pandemic

Ms Churchill echoed sentiments made by both the former and current health secretaries, describing pharmacy as at the “absolute heart” of primary care.

“From the start of the pandemic, you’ve not just stayed open to serve your communities, but each and every time you’ve gone above and beyond.

“I know that the past year has tested all pharmacies, and I’m looking forward to continuing to work together as we progress the recovery of our nation’s health. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am personally committed to doing all I can to support community pharmacy. I believe that you have an essential role as part of the NHS family, that you bring amazing value to local communities, and as I say, you are trusted.”

Ms Doyle-Price concurred: “Both the public and the political establishment are fully recognising the contribution of pharmacy to our nation’s health and that has been written large throughout the pandemic.”

Ms Churchill ended her address by addressing pharmacists directly: “We are stronger because of you. Your communities are stronger. You have served them and cared for them, and we are incredibly grateful for everything you have done.”

What would you like to see from the government in the coming months?

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