Last month, General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) chief executive Duncan Rudkin warned against “profiteering in difficult times”. He quite rightly called out the behaviour of a minority of pharmacies taking advantage during this COVID-19 pandemic through price hikes of products in short supply. What wasn’t appreciated were his comments about locums, accusing some of “profiteering to take selfish advantage” of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Pharmacists all over the country are working tirelessly on the frontline, sometimes without personal protective equipment – putting themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19. Pharmacy teams have also faced an increase in abusive and aggressive behaviour by patients since the outbreak.
Quite frankly, I was disheartened that the GPhC picked such an ill-timed moment to comment on locum rates. The council would be well-served to remember that they are not the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
The ability to negotiate locum rates is an important element of a free market economy operating under a supply and demand model. It is also a key factor used by HM Revenue and Customs when determining the self-employed status of locum pharmacists.
I fear that by having made such an erroneous statement, the GPhC is in danger of tarring all locum pharmacists with the same brush, thus bringing the profession into disrepute. That is not what my peers want from a regulator.
The GPhC ran the risk of permanently alienating a large segment of the register. By contrast, the General Medical Council (GMC) quite rightly doesn’t comment on the rates agreed by locum GPs as that is a matter of negotiation between the locum GP and their prospective employer.
In fact, the GMC said in an article last month that “doctors will stop at nothing to provide care in this crisis – our job is to support them”. The GMC took the opportunity to advocate and pillar the great work GPs are doing and reassured them that if concerns were raised about their practice, they would take into account the extreme circumstances in which they are working.
This is the kind of great insight and comfort we desperately need from our regulator. The GPhC should be seizing the opportunity to be more positive and focus on how they can support and champion the great work that pharmacists and pharmacy teams in all sectors are doing in these troubled times.
Since the statement from the GPhC was released, I have noticed that some locum agencies and multiples have used it as a stick with which to beat locum pharmacists into submission so that they accept what is being offered, instead of negotiating a hourly rate that is commensurate to the job being offered.
I shared my concerns with the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA), and it subsequently confirmed that the GPhC has no other legitimate regulatory interest in the rates agreed between locums and their clients. It explained that referring a locum to the GPhC for simply negotiating a higher hourly rate would be “an absurdity and an abuse of the regulatory system”.
Before the GPhC made these comments, I feel it would have been prudent if they had first considered whether the hourly locum rate has kept up with inflation. £10.00 in 2009 is equivalent to £13.51 in 2019 when accounting for inflation, according to the Bank of England, at an increase of 35%.
Employees usually have annual salary reviews and are offered a small wage increase to reflect the increased costs of living year on year. This is what locums are seeking to do when negotiating their pay.
Mitesh Patel is a locum pharmacist in Yorkshire
In response to this article, GPhC sent C+D this statement on April 3:
“We understand the important role that locum pharmacists are playing by helping to keep pharmacies open to provide safe and effective care for patients, and we are very grateful for their contribution.
“We are in no way trying to suggest that all locums are taking advantage of the current emergency to negotiate higher rates or that locums cannot individually negotiate rates with their clients.
“However, we were concerned to hear reports that there was some co-ordination among a small minority of locum pharmacists to significantly inflate their hourly rate. Neither pharmacy owners nor locums should be looking to profit from this situation by involving themselves in anti-competitive action. We will continue to take a balanced and even-handed approach to issues raised about some pharmacy owners and some members of the profession, whilst applauding the great work that the majority on all sides are doing to support the public.
“The requirement to behave professionally at all times remains in place and at this time of national crisis it is more important than ever that everyone’s first concern is for patients and the public.”