The significance of Lloydspharmacy’s decision to cease trading in 190 branches across England can’t be overstated.
This is concrete proof that even the giants of the sector can’t absorb the sheer scale of the funding reductions and category M clawbacks being thrown against it. With one announcement, those fears of 3,000 pharmacies closing suddenly don’t feel quite as far-fetched.
Even if the government is not beaming from ear to ear at the news its brutal policy has produced results, it certainly doesn’t appear alarmed. In its response to C+D yesterday, the Department of Health stressed that the hundreds of affected Lloydspharmacy branches equate to “just” 1.6% of the total number of pharmacies in England. It’s this callous logic – equating thousands of affected pharmacy staff and patients to a slim percentage – that perfectly encapsulates the faulty thinking in Westminster.
It also conveniently ignores the fact that this is most likely the tip of a devastating iceberg. A mere 1.6% may not sound much to the lay reader, but we mustn’t forget this is the toll being exacted on a single business. If Lloydspharmacy – the UK’s second largest multiple, with the financial safety net offered by its owner, US healthcare giant McKesson – has resorted to the nuclear option of jettisoning almost 200 branches, what hope is there for England’s four-and-a-half thousand independent pharmacies?
We wait with apprehension to see which branches the multiple will decide to close. Lloydspharmacy is not picking these stores based on whether they are located in a “cluster” – the buzzword at the heart of the government’s strategy for starving the sector of funding – but because they are no longer “commercially viable”.
This means these branches could include pharmacies in remote rural locations or deprived urban estates – desperately needed by their communities, but rendered unviable by funding cuts, and no longer enough of a business opportunity for prospective buyers to take an interest.
I sincerely hope that’s not the case, and the staff at these branches are able to secure continued work under new owners. But the harsh funding situation created by the government in the name of “efficiency” will only make this harder.
So who can community pharmacy turn to? Pharmacy minister Steve Brine has told C+D he wants “realistic and sustainable” funding for the sector. With the cuts having claimed their first high-profile victim – and the resulting national media coverage – will he be convinced that now is the time for a policy change?
Labour MP Kevin Barron plans to pose this question to the minister at an all-party pharmacy group meeting next week, which C+D will be attending. It will be an opportunity to see whether Mr Brine will replace good intentions with action, and prevent this rockfall from becoming a landslide.