“Investment in community pharmacies.” Four small words that would have huge significance for the sector in England – if they ever become a reality. And encouragingly, they found their way into Matt Hancock’s first speech since taking over as health secretary from Jeremy Hunt last month.
Admittedly, Mr Hancock’s reference to “mak[ing] the investment in primary care and community pharmacies so people don’t need to go to hospital” was the only time the sector appeared in his debut address. But those few words still mark a stark change in tone from Mr Hancock’s predecessor.
It was Mr Hunt, let’s not forget, who asked a government official to come up with a “compelling narrative to justify” the brutal cuts to English pharmacies’ funding, after being warned to expect a “public backlash”. He later privately assured Prime Minister Theresa May that he was “convinced that this level of efficiency can be made without compromising public access to pharmacies” – estimating closures would end up at “between 500-900” premises (in fact, 140 have already closed).
In public, Mr Hunt rarely mentioned the sector unless under duress – who remembers his forced “pharmacy, pharmacy, pharmacy” comeback at a healthcare conference in 2014, after it was pointed out he had failed to refer to it even once?
In contrast, Mr Hancock’s more positive tone is aligned with that of current pharmacy minister Steve Brine, who has repeatedly critiqued the current contract in England – describing it as “sluggish”, and even telling C+D he wants to see “fair and sustainable” funding for the sector.
In recent years, we’ve become used to reading “investment in pharmacy” as the government's code for diverting money elsewhere: funding pharmacists to move to GP practices, replacing face-to-face services with knock-off digital alternatives, or siphoning money to other parts of the health service. So Mr Hancock’s specific reference to “community pharmacies” – the bricks-and-mortar premises so essential to patient care – is also significant. Again, it's a small glimmer of hope, but I’ll take it.
Of course, with negotiations for an English funding contract still to begin, we are yet to see whether Mr Hancock or Mr Brine's warm words will translate into a concrete change in policy. But they are at least a sign that the cold war between the government and England’s community pharmacies may be starting to defrost.