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Xrayser: Why I don’t want the government’s payments to pharmacy

The odd grant won’t make a dent in the losses sustained by pharmacy due to funding cuts over the past few years, says Xrayser

Positive financial news is always welcome, such as the announcement that pharmacies will be reimbursed for money spent on personal protective equipment (PPE) during COVID-19, or the possibility that we won’t have to repay the £370 million in advance sums the sector received last year. The only problem is that I don’t actually want either of these payments.

Just like every other contractor, I’ve had nearly 12 months of ‘new ways of working’, meaning new procedures and new costs. The cost of increased manpower to replace furloughed shielding staff – which the government payment never quite covered in full – the cost of limiting the number of people in the pharmacy at any one time, the cost of sourcing drugs and, of course, the cost of masks and face shields.

So you’d think I would be down on my knees thanking NHS England & NHS Improvement for the £300 payment towards costs of protecting staff. But no, I still don’t want this money.

I know, I know. We contractors have moaned umpteen times about the destitute future of community pharmacy, that costs are ever going up and payments ever down, but the truth behind recent news stories about a record number of small businesses being at risk of closing, is that for once we’re not among them.

Unlike Claire who runs the pub across the street, or Julian and Lee’s hair salon, or Rocco’s watch shop, we’ve been able to keep trading through every lockdown. They are the ones who really need the £10,000 council grant made available last year to small businesses.

In the context of the pharmacy cuts, this grant – even with free PPE and COVID-19 screens – is still just chicken feed. And the whole concept of the advance payments that the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) says “will need to be reconciled at a later date” is frankly farcical.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m as happy as the next person to receive thousands of pounds in extra payments, especially after five years of austerity for us high street pharmacies, but spread that over the last 60 months of pharmacy cuts and that’s far less than what was snatched away in reduced fees and profit.

My biggest concern is that when PSNC returns to the table with the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) in 2022, once everyone has been vaccinated and COVID-19 has entered social folklore like the Spanish flu, the DH will say: “We really looked after you pharmacists with all those extra little payments, but now it’s back to reality. The country has bankrupted itself fighting this war and so, once again, it’s 1950s-style austerity for you.”

To paraphrase a common aphorism, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, fund a sustainable fishing industry and you feed everyone”. That sums up the reason I don’t want these payments. Instead, I want our efforts over the last year to lead to a properly funded contract. My fear is that when PSNC seeks a truly sustainable income for community pharmacy, the response from the DH will be “go fish”.

A long-running C+D contributor, the identity of Xrayser remains a mystery, but his irreverent views are known by all. Tweet him @Xrayser

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