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The government must act now on supermarket pharmacy closures

Mass supermarket pharmacy closures prove that the government’s funding strategy for the sector is well past its expiration date, says Beth Kennedy

It was the news story that rocked the community pharmacy sector. Lloydspharmacy’s announcement in January that it was withdrawing from Sainsbury’s supermarkets sparked warnings that more closures would follow suit without urgent government intervention, and even prompted the shadow health secretary to admit he was "alarmed" that major chains were "pulling" their branches from the market.

Now the multiple has made good on its plans, with Sainsbury’s exclusively revealing to C+D earlier this month that Lloydspharmacy had officially shelved every one of its 237 branches across the supermarket chain by June 13.

Read more: DH discussions with Lloydspharmacy on Sainsbury's closure impact ongoing

Almost half a year has passed since the multiple made its announcement, and yet the government is still taking stock of its repercussions. Despite pledging to keep an eye on the situation back in February, the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) revealed last week that talks are still ongoing between it, NHS England (NHSE) and Lloydspharmacy. It remains unclear as to the nature and depth of those discussions – and indeed what, if any, action the government will choose to take.

I have to say that I’m a little concerned that nothing substantive seems to have come out of these talks yet given just how many pharmacies are affected. C+D’s map of 2023’s supermarket pharmacy closures – which also includes smaller-scale branch closures by Tesco and Asda Pharmacy – offered a stark reminder of just how many pharmacies we’re talking about here, with over 250 closing.

Read more: Mapped: Areas hardest hit by supermarket pharmacy closures

Government figures from October revealed that there were 110 net pharmacy closures in England in 2021/22, marking the lowest number of pharmacies in the country since 2015. Why, then, is there not more concern from our politicians that such a large chunk of supermarket pharmacies – at least 244 in England alone – will have permanently shuttered by the end of 2023?

Over 700 pharmacies have closed for good in England since 2015, according to the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) – a substantial number, although not as many as the 1,000-3,000 predicted by then-pharmacy minister Alistair Burt in 2016 in the wake of that year’s brutal funding cuts. But with so many pharmacies closing all at once, I have to wonder whether we’re only starting to see the ripple effects of those cuts now, seven years after they were implemented.

And it’s not just England’s pharmacy teams that are starved of adequate funding. Last month, Community Pharmacy Scotland (CPS) roundly rejected its government’s first 2023/24 funding offer on the basis that it was “far short of what is needed” to keep pharmacies viable.

Read more: Government injects £645m investment into community pharmacy

There are hints that change could be on the horizon, though, with £645 million being made available for clinical services in England and Scottish pharmacies being promised a £20m “interim cash injection”. However, as sector leaders have warned, both of these measures are only sticking-plaster solutions to the many complex issues plaguing the UK’s community pharmacy sector.

We need to rethink the way our community pharmacies are funded, and we need to do it now. The DH has got to move away from merely talking about the impact of the Lloydspharmacy-Sainsbury’s closures, and towards doing something tangible to keep pharmacies open.

A little less conversation, a little more action, please. Otherwise, it looks certain that more pharmacies will be forced to close their doors.

Beth Kennedy is the editor of C+D

 

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