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Political Pills: What awaits the new pharmacy minister?

‘The new Minister should not wait for CPE to call, he or she must call Janet Morrison and meet her within their first week…’

When I arrived at the Department of Health, shortly after being appointed by Theresa May in June 2017, my first conversation was with my private secretary and our two Special Advisors (SPADs).

I asked them what should be at the top of my in-tray and/or worry list. In unison they said - primary care and access to GPs. Some things never change.

As I got to work (as the Minister for Public Health, Primary Care and Prevention) two things seemed blindingly obvious to me; GPs were telling us they’re burnt out, not wanting to work full-time as a result and leaving the profession.

At the same time, there was this other workforce in community pharmacy - which I saw from day one as part of team primary care - telling me they could do more, wanted to do more and were more often than not open seven days a week right there on the high street. What’s not to like?

So I set about building the case for, long story short, what would become Pharmacy First. It’s one thing I am obviously very proud of from my time in government.

Read more: Rishi Sunak: 'Pharmacies are the lifeblood of our communities - Labour has no plan'

This weekend, or more likely early next week, a new lucky soul will be appointed pharmacy minister, and it will be their turn to meet an excited private office and SPADs for the first time.

I’m secretly envious of them because they will inherit (not necessarily the case in every area) a sector with its pecker up and a real ‘opportunity’ moment thanks to Pharmacy First.

But of course opportunity moments have to be grasped and pharmacy needs a new minister with the skill, imagination and (above all else) impact across government to take advantage of them.

What are the threats to that happening, assuming the polls are right and Sir Keir Starmer enters Downing Street later this week?

Read more: Wes Streeting: 'Sunak says he wants to put pharmacies first, but he's left the sector to rot'

They are many but, for me, a serious lack of ministerial experience in the (probable) incoming Labour Government is paramount. I have more ministerial experience than pretty much the entire Shadow Cabinet put together!

When you enter ministerial office the civil service, desperate to please, want one thing above all else from their new minister - clear direction.

Yes Minister is a great TV show with many echoes of Whitehall life believe me but, in my experience, it was perfectly wrong to suggest that officials want to run the show and curtail a foolish new Minister.

For sure, they are there to advise and provide you with whatever you need to do your job but what they want more than anything is a boss who knows what they want to do and, crucially, has the political weight to get it through No.10 and No.11.

And of course, in health you need to get NHSE on-side early and make they sure they know you are there to lead on your brief and they are there to support and deliver what’s agreed.

Page one, line one facing that new leader is of course funding and the new deal Community Pharmacy England need to do.

I said last time, CPE will need to work hard on its attention grabbing ‘OVER HERE’ technique and make the case that no new promises on pharmacy can realistically come to pass without a complete overhaul of the Community Pharmacy Contractual Framework (CPCF).

The new Minister should not wait for CPE to call, he/she must call Janet Morrison and meet her within their first week.

Read more: No new pharmacy contract until ‘after the election’, says CPE

They need to make sure No.10 are in the room and have the confidence to bring No.11 in early doors. Miss that and you’re simply talking in a vacuum.

The closure figures we continue to see across community pharmacy speak for themselves, so this is urgent.

Secondly, and my former select committee couldn’t have been clearer, the new government must urgently address medicine shortages because they risk undermining Pharmacy First and public confidence in the sector not to mention the impact on the health of the nation.

Our new Minister needs to get a handle on where the blockage(s) lie and face up to them from the start. They must use their office, and significant goodwill, to get manufacturers, suppliers and wholesalers in one room to produce a plan that will move the dial within months at the counter.

Read more: Pharmacies set to receive just £180m of £645m ‘promised’ Pharmacy First funding

And they need to use those political skills to get those Serious Shortage Protocols (SSP’s), and the regulations required, through the government whips and into a delegated legislation committee in the September sitting. The same urgency is required for generic substitution. The work will have been done. The Minister needs to get it off the shelf from the relevant officials pronto.

Finally, on workforce, an early message needs to reach NHSE that the pharmacy targets set out in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan risk being widely missed without a focus on access to placements and the NHS Learning Support Fund should re-open for pharmacists and technicians, mid-year if necessary.

Oh and a review of funding under the Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme is crucial to ensure we have the right mix across primary care between community pharmacy, general practice and primary care networks (PCN’s).

So much has been said, and will continue to be said, about community pharmacy. Many will look back to previous false dawns, cuts and betrayals of previous opportunities.

We should of course never forget our history but, in the words of a very special (and wise) man; “You can't go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Opportunity knocks for one new Minister who, right now, probably doesn’t even know it.

Steve Brine is a former pharmacy minister and chaired the cross-party Health & Social Care Select Committee from 2022-2024. He was MP for Winchester 2010-2024.

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