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‘Locum could not be found’: Was 2022 the year of the temporary pharmacy closure?

Temporary closures dominated the headlines this year. But laying the sole blame for them on a shortage of pharmacists or rising locum rates somewhat misses the point, says C+D’s editor Beth Kennedy

Well, what a year it’s been for community pharmacy. After two years where COVID-19 reigned supreme in the news cycle, any hopes pharmacy teams had that the pressure would let up in 2022 were dashed as workloads continued to rise and funding stayed stagnant.

Several key themes jump out when looking back over the stories the C+D team has covered this year. Over the past 12 months, issues such as temporary pharmacy closures, rising locum rates, working conditions, and workforce issues have been the subject of countless articles.

Read more: Full-time PCN pharmacist and pharmacy technician numbers hit 4.5k

All of this points to a sector in crisis – a phrase that we’ve heard bandied around for several years now but, for me, has never felt more apt to describe the current state of community pharmacy.

And the thing is, these issues are all linked.

The sector may be divided over its root causes, but community pharmacy undoubtedly has a workforce issue. That in turn has led to rising locum rates as contractors and managers scramble to find cover, as well as the large number of temporary pharmacy closures we’ve seen this year.

The results of a C+D investigation earlier this year found that there were 20,924 instances of temporary pharmacy closures in England between October 2021 and the end of September 2022.

Read more: Revealed: The reasons behind temporary pharmacy closures

Pharmacies provided "locum could not be found" as the reason for having to close temporarily in 10,637 instances, while "no cover found" featured 811 times.

In the face of this data, it would be all too easy to lay the blame for these closures on greedy locums asking for more money than contractors can afford to pay for cover, or on a shortage of pharmacists. But I think this misses the point.

It is arguably fair that locums are demanding more money for shifts after years of stagnant or dwindling rates.

And we can quibble over whether there really is a shortage of pharmacists until the cows come home, but it seems to me undeniable that there is a gap in the number of people ready and willing to work in community pharmacy and the number of roles that need to be covered.

Catch up with C+D’s sixth Big Debate, which asked: Is there a shortage of community pharmacists?

However, there are wider issues at play here. It all comes down to money, as it always seems to.

One of the arguments often trotted out in the pharmacist shortage debate is that there is no scarcity of pharmacists, just a lack of those who are prepared to work in the community sector in its current state.

Now, I don’t doubt that there is the odd dodgy employer in community pharmacy, as there is in any industry. But I would put money on the vast majority of employers wanting to offer fair rates, good working conditions, and job satisfaction to their teams.

But, realistically, being able to offer that has become increasingly difficult after more than five years of flat funding – especially now that rising energy prices and a cost-of-living crisis have come home to roost.

So yes, the biggest issues plaguing community pharmacy in 2022 are all linked. But the solution to all of them is the same – adequate funding.

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

While the final two years of England’s multi-year funding deal have already been agreed, it seems ludicrous to think that the government is totally immovable on granting community pharmacy a separate cash injection at some point next year.

If Rishi Sunak’s government is really serious about putting the country’s “needs above politics”, the former chancellor – himself the son of a pharmacist – will surely intervene.

Forget a handful of chocolate coins in my stocking. This Christmas, I’m asking the government to stump up the cold, hard cash that community pharmacy so desperately needs not only to survive, but to thrive.

Beth Kennedy is editor at C+D

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