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Our new PM is the son of a pharmacist – but will he cough up the cash?

Rishi Sunak portrays himself as a friend of the pharmacy sector but if that's what he really is, he must not just talk the talk but walk the walk as well, says Community Pharmacy West Yorkshire chair Ashley Cohen

Mr Sunak often mentions his pharmacy roots and support for the profession with pride. He has discussed his mother’s community pharmacy background and his time working in the family business at length.

He is often photographed visiting community pharmacies and supporting all the additional services and opportunities the sector provides.

Now that he is Prime Minister and in overall charge of the government’s direction of travel, will we see more action rather than words?

Read more: Will Rishi Sunak put community pharmacy’s ‘needs above politics’?

Over the course of the last few years, the sector has been inundated with warm words, platitudes, Thursday night claps during the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing thanks and support. However, none of these pay the bills.

We have heard from many Prime Ministers and health secretaries about the extended role community pharmacy can and should play, not just through COVID-19, but in the wider system and how it can help take the pressure off primary and secondary care.

Now that the sector is on its knees after eight years of underfunding, it’s time for words to stop and action to begin. The pharmacy sector has not received any increase in funding since 2015.

Since our five-year flat funding contract, we have worked tirelessly through COVID-19, which still poses significant operational and staffing challenges for our sector. The current financial crisis poses an even greater threat to our future. Indeed, it threatens our existence.

As we are now encouraged to live and work through COVID-19 in the new normal, we are losing staff to other sectors – both in and outside healthcare and our costs are spiralling out of control due to fuel, gas and electricity costs.

Our staff are also putting pressure on us to increase wages with inflation. In the time since our budgets were cut, we have seen a 45% increase in the National Living Wage.

How can we recruit, train, and retain staff in a highly specialist industry when we are not given the right investment to keep our current staff?

All the talk is of a tough financial situation and potential public sector cuts. However, I would encourage the new Prime Minister to read the plethora of reports, analysis and outlooks on our sector that have been produced by Ernst & Young, the National Pharmacy Association, the Pharmacy Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) and the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, which all describe the dire situation our sector is in.

The latest of these reports from David Taylor of University College London and Panos Kanavos from the London School of Economics investigated the implications of high inflation rates for community pharmacy, given the baseline of significantly reduced NHS funding for the sector in England.

It reiterates that without urgent intervention, more pharmacies will close, putting more pressure on an already stretched system. The report describes the threat of thousands of community pharmacy closures as an emergency that puts NHS services at risk.

It coincides with the release of opinion poll data that shows pharmacy closures would lead to unnecessary GP appointments and a deteriorating quality of life for millions of people.

The shift away from a volume-based prescription workload to more clinical service has hardly been a seismic change. Yes, new services have been commissioned, such as the Community Pharmacist Consultation Service, Discharge Medicines Service and hypertension case finding service, but the rate of referrals for these are more of a trickle than any significant shift.

The pharmacy sector needs scale in these services to embed them into our ways of working because at the current volume they can be more of a hindrance than a help to our current workload.

Read more: Just 5% of PCNs currently on track to meet CPCS referral target

The sector’s can-do attitude and agility has been shown in the rapid uptake of vaccination services. Community pharmacies are now providing a huge number of COVID-19 booster vaccinations to the local community and flu vaccinations rise rapidly each year in our pharmacies as the population get more accustomed to receiving these from us.

Pharmacy has already made efficiency savings over the last eight years, so it is essential we are not seen as another easy target for cuts and public sector efficiency savings. It is also important that PSNC and other trade organisations shout with one collective voice, so we continue to be heard among all the other professions, trade unions and sectors which are also desperate to be heard.

So, Rishi, what will community pharmacy look like when your children graduate from university? Will they want to follow in your mother’s footsteps and play an active role in healthcare? Will the sector be thriving or just surviving?

You have taken over the reins of our country at a critical point. However, if you truly believe in the value community pharmacy teams can play in the overall provision of healthcare, then invest in us as a profession.

With this investment, you will unleash the massive potential in the communities we serve to help fix the current issues the NHS faces in terms of access to healthcare provision, tackling inequalities, and reducing significant clinical backlogs.

Ashley Cohen is the managing director of Pharm-Assist (Healthcare) Ltd and chair of Community Pharmacy West Yorkshire

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