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Lloydspharmacy exits Sainsbury’s: Is this independent pharmacy’s time to shine?

Lloydspharmacy’s withdrawal from Sainsbury’s supermarkets could offer independents the chance to truly show how agile they can be, says C+D’s editor Beth Kennedy

“Can’t help being bewildered by all these closures – we are constantly being told that we should use pharmacists more,” my mother texted me last week.

“Good news for the independents, I guess.”

We’d been messaging during a frantic day for C+D last Thursday (January 19), when the team broke the story that Lloydspharmacy has decided to “withdraw” pharmacy services from its 237 branches in Sainsbury’s supermarkets around the UK.

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

I couldn’t help but be impressed. With just a couple of sentences, she’d pointed out the fatal flaw in the government’s approach to funding primary care and precisely why last week’s news delivered such a body blow to the UK’s community pharmacy network. We should offer her a job at C+D.

It’s no wonder she’s confused.

“Bewildering” is probably the perfect word to describe the government’s approach to pharmacy funding – although “blundering” would also do.

It’s completely inconsistent, and the public is starting to take notice.

For years now, it’s seemed that every major health campaign has encouraged patients to go to their pharmacist first, rather than burdening their GP or A&E.

But the funding for pharmacists to keep up with the demand this has generated simply hasn’t materialised. Not only that, but we’ve been left with a 30% reduction in funding in real terms over the past seven years.

Steve Barclay is the latest in a line of health secretaries to tease a bigger role for pharmacists, hinting earlier this month that the upcoming primary care recovery plan will outline plans for pharmacists to take on “additional services”.

Read more: Primary care recovery plan: Barclay wants pharmacists to do 'even more'

But pharmacy teams’ ability to meet these added responsibilities – hampered in the first place by a workforce crisis and years of flat funding – now seems fantastical after yesterday’s news that England’s contractors will see transitional payments cut to zero from next month.

At this point, Mr Barclay’s plan for pharmacists to do “even more” doesn’t read as a nod to pharmacy’s ability to take on an increasingly hands-on clinical role.

Read more: ‘Final straw’ as transitional payments to be cut to zero from February, PSNC says

No, for exhausted, beaten down teams, it will seem more like a threat. Yet another promise to the public that their local pharmacy can deliver more, even as already unworkable budgets are further constricted.

Still, I remain hopeful that we are on the precipice of change. Public opinion towards Mr Barclay’s rather pugnacious attitude towards striking healthcare workers seems to be tipping in favour of those taking action.

I’m optimistic that the same support exists for pharmacy teams – especially after the crucial frontline role the sector took on during COVID-19.

Perhaps Lloydspharmacy’s decision to shrink its number of branches signals another shift in dynamics, this time about who holds the balance of power within community pharmacy.

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

For decades, the really big players in the sector have been the large multiples. But Lloydspharmacy’s decision to get rid of over 200 branches could signal the dawn of a new era where independent pharmacies dominate.

Indeed, Tony Evans – the head of pharmacy at the broker Christie & Co – has already alluded to as much, telling C+D last week that the news could ultimately be positive for the sector if independents snap up the branches Lloydspharmacy decides to sell.

Their agility and ability to adapt outside of the corporate constraints many larger chains are subject to could even lead to greater take-up of locally commissioned services, he suggested.

Whether Mr Evans will be proved right, or pharmacy bodies’ warnings that more community pharmacy closures are imminent, remains to be seen.

But I think it’s safe to say that change is in the air, and all community pharmacy can hope is that those changes will be for the better.

 

Beth Kennedy is editor at C+D

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