According to an article in the Health Service Journal (HSJ) on Monday (May 17), the NHS is “scrambling” to avoid an “embarrassing” underspend against an inflated budget given by the government to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE&I) received around £18 billion in additional funding to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and in March 2021 health secretary Matt Hancock announced a further £6.6bn for the coming year.
HSJ claimed that “multiple senior NHS sources” told the publication that the NHS underspend for the year 2020-21 could potentially run to “several billions” of pounds.
“Only fair to repurpose surplus funds”
Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of AIMp, described the news as “shocking for community pharmacies”, which are waiting for confirmation that the £370m advance payment the sector received for COVID-related costs will be written off.
“Community pharmacies stayed open throughout the crisis and for many were their first port of call for reliable health advice,” Dr Hannbeck said. “They were happy to do so, but it’s only right that they’re not left out of pocket for taking necessary protective measures, for their staff and for the public who turned to them for assistance.”
“Pharmacies are a valuable healthcare resource offering accessible healthcare services across all communities. As well as clinical services and safe medicines supply, they are a place for many elderly and lonely patients to rely on for support and advice.
“Surely, it is only fair and reasonable, with all this money sloshing around in the NHS, to write off the loan and to cover our extra costs that pharmacies have occurred due to the pandemic?” she asked.
The National Pharmacy Association has been campaigning for the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to write off the loans, as he suggested he would do during a February press briefing. The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) has said it was “unlikely” to make a final decision on the 2021/22 pharmacy contract until there was “clarity” on COVID costs.
PSNC chief executive Simon Dukes told C+D today that “it is unthinkable that the NHS could have an excess of money set aside for COVID and not use any of that to support the one part of the NHS that has remained open to all patients throughout this crisis”.
PSNC will continue to press for this in the ongoing contract negotiations, Mr Dukes added.
Pharmacies make “important contribution”
C+D contacted NHSE&I for comment. It is understood that if there was an underspend in the NHS budget, that money would be returned to central government.
A Department of Health and Social Care (DH) spokesperson told C+D: “Community pharmacies make an important contribution to the NHS and have gone above and beyond in response to COVID-19 to serve their communities, including playing an important role in our vaccination programme.
“Discussions are ongoing with PSNC about reimbursement of COVID-19 costs incurred by community pharmacies and repayment of the £370m,” they added.
C+D also contacted the Treasury for comment, who directed the query to the DH.