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'Alleged NHS billions underspend must help pay pharmacy’s COVID loans’

NHSE&I has an alleged underspend after being given extra funds during the COVID-19 pandemic
NHSE&I has an alleged underspend after being given extra funds during the COVID-19 pandemic

The Association of Independent Multiple pharmacies (AIMp) is calling for an alleged NHS underspend of “billions” to be used to write off pharmacy’s COVID loans.

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.

Ongoing campaigns

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.

Are you confident the government will write off pharmacy's COVID loans?

david williams, Community pharmacist

For some, the arguments against paying MAY hold water. However, I know some of my colleagues in England, especially those with small pharmacies, are struggling. Do not forget, for the small independent, the owner is also the"staff". In Wales we have a fairer deal, that rewards services and a shiffting contract. Do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, just because of you do not loke some contracty owners. As for M.Rx(n), NEGOTIATED, should be "negotiated" as it was not, it was imposed. I need to make a profit of £120 / hour every hour, just to pay the wages and  keep the lights on. It is not simple as you make out. And yes, we did stay open and prevented problems further down the NHS line. As did, retail staff, carers, transport workers etc. No vilification of a a contractor is justified. Profit is not a dirty word, it provides jobs. I agree some working conditions are poor and even dangerous at times. However, that is not the norm, especially in small independent pharmacies.

M. Rx(n), Student

There's no villification here, David. Just pointing out that a vital care infrastructure cannot be run on the whims of its operstors. A fair contract agreement should be reached and stuck to -- emergency or not (relative to impact).

Running a Pharmacy is a CONTRACT between the operator and the government to supply a vital public good - a fact that seems to get lost on this forum. As I said earlier, i cannot imagine competent government departments to gratuitously dole out funds outside of what is NEGOTIATED -- so I guess the PSNC has its job cut out for it this time.


Mark Boland, Pharmaceutical Adviser

The money will go straight into the pockets of the contractor. Employees will not see any wage increase or improvement in the appalling working conditions.

Rent seekers should get nothing.

Axed Locum, Locum pharmacist

Mail on sunday reports Boots U.K. division paid a dividend of approx £440m to the parent group company Walgreens. No case for a write off of the loan.

Meera Sharma, Pharmacy owner/ Proprietor

Good call by AIMP! With this money unused there should be no excuse now to fund pharmacy and write off the loan. 

Mark Boland, Pharmaceutical Adviser

It is the employees that have done all the hard work and made all the sacrifices and they will not see any of that money. How dare contractors claim that they are the ones who are deserving.

M. Rx(n), Student

I suspect competent government departments do not gratuitously hand over funds to CONTRACTORS outside of what is NEGOTIATED.

M. Rx(n), Student


But some of it should go towards the next contract to specifically properly remenurate staff and subsidise dispensing technology.

Axed Locum, Locum pharmacist

The underspend should be repatriated to the central government coffers to reduce the debt of 2.2tn. There cannot and must not be any variation to the global sum, and the advance loan of 370m should be clawed back. The pharmacies remained open for business because it was in their interest to do so to capitalise on the extra business Covid 19 generated generated for them. The contractors were paid handsomly for opening during the bank holidays in April amd May 2020 and also benefitted from Business Rates Relief, and grants. They do not deserve any more, as they did not, will not and do not pass it on to the workers at the coal face!!

They can be awarded nominal "covid related" costs, on a condition that they return all the business grant recieved from the local authority.

M. Rx(n), Student

Hencewith, the NHS must require every CONTRACTOR to furnish a robust disaster operation plan as part of holding a Pharmacy contract.

Unless a disaster fundamentally impacts the core guaranteed income of a Pharmacy, there should be no expectation of a handout.

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