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Lloydspharmacy's exit from Sainsbury's could have wider repercussions

What will Lloydspharmacy's withdrawal from Sainsbury's mean for hard-to-reach patients, asks Toni Hazell

We have all become used to a 24-hour world. Realise on Sunday night that your child needs to dress as someone from Ancient Greece for school on Tuesday? No problem, go online and you’ll find a costume with 24-hour delivery.

Realise that you forgot to collect your regular prescription and you’ve only got one tablet left? No problem, because you use a pharmacy in your local supermarket which is open long hours.

Well, maybe not for long.

Lloydspharmacy has announced that it will withdraw pharmacy services from all Sainsbury’s stores over the course of 2023, only eight years after it acquired them.

Read more: Lloydspharmacy to ‘withdraw’ pharmacy services from all Sainsbury’s branches

This affects 237 branches and comes after “a strategic review of its operations in response to changing market conditions”. In plain English – they aren’t making enough money.

This isn’t totally unexpected, with Lloydspharmacy having already shut 10 branches in Sainsbury’s stores and reduced the trading hours of others.

Of course, it fits with the current narrative throughout the NHS, that staff in all areas are being expected to provide the same service with year-on-year real terms cuts in resources.

Real teams pay has gone down for junior doctors by 26% since 2008, for nurses by 10% over the last ten years, and community pharmacies have had their funding cut by about 30% in real terms over the last seven years.

Where pay rises have been agreed, they are generally sub-inflationary and often unfunded. This is the case for salaried GPs, which have to come out of practice funding that is itself not keeping up with inflation.

So we know why the closures are happening, and we can brace ourselves for more primary care services becoming financially unviable, but what effect will this have on those who work near one of the pharmacies that is about to close?

I suppose this will depend partly on what happens in-store. Will Sainsbury’s find other pharmacies, either chains or independents, to work in-store, or will 237 branches no longer have a pharmacy?

Read more: Lloydspharmacy exits Sainsbury’s: Locations of all the branches revealed

Presumably it will be a bit of both and so a significant number of areas could lose a pharmacy. Knock-on effects could be significant.

Other local pharmacies might get busier – but with a well-documented shortage in pharmacists, will they be able to manage the workload?

As a GP who phone triages all requests for appointments, I regularly advise people who appear to have self-limiting illnesses to consult a pharmacist first.

If their only local pharmacy has shut, then some patients, possibly the most vulnerable without their own transport, might find that this option is closed to them.

And what about a worried teenager, seeking the contraceptive pill or emergency contraception – both now available in some forms over the counter – but who would prefer to approach a pharmacist than their GP?

They will also potentially find their options become more limited.

Looking on the bright side, customers let down by this change might come to realise the benefits of a local independent pharmacy.

Read more: Boots: 1,500 jobs open for pharmacists 'impacted by Lloydspharmacy closures'

Independent pharmacists own their business and have an incentive to support their staff to develop their roles and training, to take a long term view, provide relevant services for their local population, and to know their patients.

On more than one occasion, it has been a local independent pharmacist who has tipped me off that an elderly patient, usually a regular visitor, hasn’t been seen for a while, or has been seen but looks more dishevelled than usual.

I always take these calls seriously and they are often the first hint of safeguarding issues.

When Lloydspharmacy took over the Sainsbury’s branches, the Competition Markets Authority took a year to approve the deal, insisting on the sale of some existing Lloydspharmacy branches first.
 
In retrospect, we have to wonder if allowing one pharmacy group to be so dominant was a good idea. And if this brings more variation of provider to the market then maybe, in the long run, it won’t be such a bad thing.

 

Toni Hazell is a GP based in a practice in London

 

Check the C+D site for the latest coverage on this developing story

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