Between them, the Treasury, NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care need to sort this out, but who among them should take the lead? The answer is that any one of them could take the situation in hand and create the momentum that is needed. Failing this, they will be collectively responsible for further wearing down a service relied upon by millions of vulnerable people.
My wish is for NHS England’s chief executive, Simon Stevens, to step up and do something wonderful. Infamously, he told a parliamentary committee in 2016 that the job of pharmacies is to “dole out” pills. However, I know that isn’t where he stands and he absolutely recognises that primary care would have fallen over during the pandemic without pharmacies to absorb much of the pressure.
But NHS England advises ministers and they implement policy. I know all too well from being in the job on this issue that moving minds at the top of government helps enormously to create momentum throughout the system. Chancellor Rishi Sunak worked in his mother’s pharmacy in his youth, and his intervention would make a world of difference.
A few weeks ago I joined a National Pharmacy Association (NPA) podcast with three impressively dedicated pharmacists who were all looking into the face of the COVID-19 second wave. Ali Sparkes, owner of The Health Dispensary in Wales told me: “Through a huge storm we've kept afloat and in many ways we've kept the NHS afloat.”
Olivier Picard, owner of three-strong Newdays Pharmacy group in Berkshire and an NPA board member, pointed out that going into the second wave “many pharmacies have already spent money they can’t recuperate”. However determined and resilient pharmacists and their teams may be, they cannot continue to run on empty indefinitely.
For me, this is not only a question of a short-term solution. Pharmacies should be part of Boris Johnson’s aim to “build back better” after the COVID-19 pandemic, by reshaping services in a way that maximises the primary care role of pharmacies.
This was a key theme for me when I was pharmacy minister from 2017 until 2019, the idea that investment should flow to the organisations that keep people well, not just to those parts of the health service that treat people once they are poorly. The opportunity exists to significantly expand pharmacy-based public health services, if the support is put in place financially and systems are properly integrated.
The Prime Minister himself said in March that pharmacists are doing a “wonderful” job. He is far from alone in holding that view. The All-Party Pharmacy Group published its survey on pharmacy sustainability this week. I can tell you that pharmacy’s stock among my parliamentary colleagues is running extremely high.
We are doing our bit to cajole the powers that be into action. Whoever makes the decisive to unlock funding for pharmacies will be doing the nation a great service.
Steve Brine is the Conservative MP for Winchester and Chandler's Ford. Hewas pharmacy minister from 2017 until 2019. This opinion piece is brought in association with Sigma Pharmaceuticals.
C+D collaborated with the NPA for this article