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‘Thriving market’: Minister upbeat about community pharmacy despite closures

Dame Andrea Leadsom has told the HSCC that pharmacy provision and government support for the sector “remains very strong”.

Pharmacy minister Dame Andrea Leadsom said that the community pharmacy sector “continues to be a thriving market”, at the final session of the health and social care committee’s (HSCC) pharmacy inquiry today (March 26).

“I think the overall package of support and also provision remains very strong,” said Dame Andrea, who took over as pharmacy minister in November last year.

Read more: Penny Mordaunt slams 'unacceptable' pharmacy provision following closures

She appeared unworried by the rate of pharmacy closures, saying that “things change” and asserting that “access remains good” despite “almost 400” net closures since the start of the 2023/24 financial year. 

She said that if a patient’s local bricks and mortar pharmacy closes or they are faced with “temporary queues”, they can simply “go online” and use a distance selling pharmacy (DSP).

 

New “balance”

 

Dame Andrea emphasised that “pharmacies are private businesses” as she explained that the government would not intervene to stop a pharmacy closing.

She said that while the government “very closely” monitors pharmacy provision, it is the responsibility of local councils to determine gaps in pharmaceutical needs and for integrated care boards (ICBs) to provide “licences for new pharmacies”.

Read more: Weldricks posts £1.4m loss amid funding ‘war of attrition’

Dame Andrea added that it is “for ICBs to then facilitate the opening of a sufficient number of community pharmacies” and that she hopes to see an uptick in the speed at which they process applications to open new pharmacies.

NHS England’s (NHSE) director for primary care Dr Amanda Doyle said that there is a “balance” to the changing shape of the community pharmacy sector. 

Read more: Liverpool council reports 'concerning' 9% drop in pharmacies since 2022

Dr Doyle said that while the number of bricks and mortar pharmacies have seen “9% reduction over five years”, there has also been a “9% increase in DSPs”.

But she acknowledged that the government’s strategy “to increase the role of community pharmacy as a first line provider of clinical services to the community” depends on having “that estate”. 

Dr Doyle said that NHSE is “absolutely committed that community pharmacy remains embedded in the community”.

 

“Private businesses”

 

The pharmacy minister also kiboshed any prospect of the government providing additional funding to pharmacies that need to upgrade their stores to deliver more services. 

Responding to a suggestion from Conservative MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis James Morris that an establishment fee could be reintroduced to help pharmacies refurbish stores to better accommodate more services, Dame Andrea emphasised that community pharmacies are private businesses that can offer “other services to members of the public”.

Read more: Cuts, overdrafts and closures: Business becoming ‘impossible’ for contractors

“I don't think it's right that the taxpayer should take on the burden of updating or upgrading those premises,” she said.

She added that monthly Pharmacy First fees could be used to “clear space out of an existing room to create a consulting room”.

However, Dr Doyle acknowledged that “a big store can much more easily repurpose space” than an independent pharmacy.

Read more: ‘We have to be realistic’: Government could impose new contract, CPE warns

According to the most recent data from the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA), at the end of February 2024, there were 10,153 bricks and mortar pharmacies in England and 405 DSPs.

According to the NHSBSA’s general pharmaceutical services data released in October, in 2019/20 there were 11,436 bricks and mortar pharmacies -13% more than today - and 390 DSPs - 4% fewer than today.

It comes after leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt this month said that prescription waits of over an hour caused by pharmacy closures are “not acceptable”.

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