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'Pharmacy wastelands’: Over 200 net closures in 2023 so far, DH admits

The government has confirmed that there have been more than 200 net pharmacy closures so far this year but admitted that it has not assessed the impact.

There are 222 fewer community pharmacies in England since the start of the year, pharmacy minister Neil O’Brien told parliament this week (July 19), in response to a written question from Conservative MP for Waveney Peter Aldous.

Mr Aldous had asked the health secretary whether the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) had assessed the trends in pharmacy closures since January 1.

Mr O’Brien pointed to NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) data showing a reduction of 222 pharmacies between December 31 2022 and June 30, adding that the “reduction was mainly driven by the large multiples reducing their portfolios”.

Read more: Revealed: 300 Boots branch closures to begin this month

He said that the DH is “monitoring the market” and claimed that pharmacy access “remains good”.

He added that 80% of people in England live within a 20-minute walk of a pharmacy and that there are “twice as many pharmacies in the more deprived areas”, repeating well-worn statistics.


“Pharmacy wastelands”


Earlier this week (July 18), Mr Aldous appeared before parliament’s Backbench Business Committee to apply for a debate in the House of Commons on the “future of community pharmacies”. 

“All of a sudden there are fewer [community pharmacies] on our high streets and there is a danger. We’ve had dentistry deserts - we might be moving towards a situation of pharmacy wastelands,” Mr Aldous said as he presented his motivation for the debate.

Read more: HSCC chair urges government to deliver extra pharmacy funding 'fast'

He told the committee that “core funding” has decreased “in real terms” by 30% since 2016, adding that the purpose of the debate would be to “grapple with” the “funding issue”, as well as community pharmacy’s role in “improving access to primary care”.

Mr Aldous also said that a Community Pharmacy England (CPE) four-point plan to cope with “the funding squeeze” – published in November - should also be debated, warning that the sector has been “taken…for granted for a very long time”.

The debate has been set to take place on September 14 in Westminster Hall.


No closures assessment, no funding talks with Treasury


It was a busy two days for community pharmacy in parliament, as the sector featured prominently in written questions for the government in both houses. 

Elliot Colburn, Conservative MP for Carshalton and Wallington, asked whether the DH had assessed the “potential impact on public health” from the pharmacy closures recorded since 2015.

Mr O’Brien said on Wednesday (July 19) that no such assessment had been made, and in addition to reiterating the ‘walking distance’ line, said that “there is a similar number of pharmacies to ten years ago”.

Read more: 'Our funding is rotten': Sector needs £1.1bn now, warns AIMp chief

However, the population has not remained static over the past decade.

According to NHSBSA statistics, there were 11,495 community pharmacies in England in 2012/2013 compared with 10,845 - including distance sellers - according to the latest data from the end of June, referenced by Mr O’Brien in his written answer to Mr Aldous.

Between 2012/2013 and the present, there are 650 (6%) fewer community pharmacies, according to C+D’s calculations.

Read more: Sector denounces 'unfair' GP funding uplift for staff pay rises

Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) 2011 census showed that there were 53 million people in England, rising to 57 million by the 2021 census - an increase of 7%. 

And ONS statistics show that the population in England over 60 has risen 16% in a decade from 12 million in 2011 to 14 million by 2021.

Mr Colburn also asked whether the health secretary had discussed funding for community pharmacies with the chancellor.

Mr O’Brien said that “no recent discussions have been held” and reiterated that “up to £645 million over two years” would be invested to expand services in community pharmacies.


Workforce survey results “published shortly”


Mike Amesbury, Labour MP for Weaver Vale, asked the government whether it had assessed “the adequacy of the community pharmacy workforce to meet the needs of local pharmacies”.

Responding on Wednesday, Mr O’Brien reiterated the details of the recently released NHS long term workforce plan, which plans to increase training places for pharmacists by 29% in the next five years.

He added that NHS England (NHSE) is “currently analysing data” from the 2022 community pharmacy workforce survey, the results of which “will be published shortly”.

Read more: NPA sets out vision to ‘redefine’ community pharmacy’s role in the NHS

Mr O’Brien said that the “robust data” gleaned from the survey would help with “future workforce, service planning and investment decisions”.

Mr Amesbury also asked what action the government is taking “to resolve medicine shortages affecting pharmacies”.

Health minister Will Quince replied that shortages were “an ongoing issue”, adding that the DH had “well-established processes” to deal with “the small number of supply problems”.


“No assessment of shortfall in community pharmacy”


In the upper house, Labour peer Baroness Golding asked whether the government had assessed any funding shortfall for community pharmacies in England since 2015 or the trends in closures this year.

But Lord Markham, the parliamentary under-secretary for health and social care, said on Wednesday that there had been “no assessment…of any shortfall in community pharmacy funding”.

Read more: ‘Many supporters’: Cross-party MPs pledge support for community pharmacy

The slew of questions comes as Labour and Conservative MPs heralded community pharmacy’s role in primary care at the launch of a policy brief mapping a strategy for the sector, held at the House of Commons last week.

In June, C+D reported that the DH and NHSE remained in discussions with Lloydspharmacy on the impact of the multiple’s branch closures in Sainsbury’s supermarkets.

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