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Is the NHS Call to Action community pharmacy's Watergate?

NHS England launched the Pharmacy Call to Action in December 2013

There’s a builders van that does the rounds near where I live, which carries a sign that reads: “Patel Brothers, builders. You’ve tried the cowboys – now try the Indians!"

Back in 2014, NHS England led a series of Calls to Action, one of which was to community pharmacy. Typically, instead of a single unified call with a multi-disciplinary, person-centred approach, all the calls were done in individual professional silos.

But even so, it seemed to me that it had finally dawned upon the NHS that they had exhausted the “Cowboys” (doctors and nurses – no offence), and so now it was the turn of the “Indians” (i.e. US!). Finally, community pharmacy and the NHS were on the same page, filed under the heading “clinical”.

The NHS’ consultation document promised to create a virtuous debate about the future of community pharmacy, and gave every indication it would strategically inform the redevelopment of the community pharmacy contract along more clinical lines.  

There was even talk of looking afresh at all the primary care contracts and aligning them – so making GPs, optometrists, dentists and community pharmacists one big, happy NHS family.

The original consultation document noted that pharmacies are well-used (14 times per person per year – 11 for health reasons), especially by people with long-term conditions. Our ease-of-access was noted as a key strength, and community pharmacists were recognised as “medicines experts” with a pivotal role in compliance. With beefed-up medicines use reviews and the new medicine service, we looked set to take centre-stage.

It acknowledged that medicines supply was both “safe” and “efficient”, and it was noted that community pharmacists had saved £1.8 billion by driving down the NHS drugs bill. There was even growing dissatisfaction with GP access due to increased general practice workload.

There was an equally positive series of patient stories, which illustrated how community pharmacists were unsung heroes, busily preventing hospitalisations and other life-threatening catastrophes with our fantastic clinical interventions.

The profession, for once, got really engaged and responded magnificently to the call to action challenge, enumerating all the things we were already doing for patients and the public, and imagining a community-pharmacy-led NHS. It really was can-do stuff.

And so we waited…..and we waited.. and then... nothing. A full year later the NHS published its Five Year Forward View, followed by its package of cuts to pharmacy funding in England.

We had gone from being a pivotal clinical and public health resource to, as the NHS chief executive Simon Stevens recently told MPs, an inefficient service that “costs something like £2.8 billion... to dole out £8 billion pounds worth of medicines”.

Despite endless prompting, the NHS has never publicly published the outcome of the Pharmacy Call to Action, and the many hundreds of stakeholder responses, which were universally positive. So why did we go from hero to zero?  Maybe we’ll never know, but I suspect foul-play. At some stage someone even took down the link where related documents were hosted on the NHS England website. 

It took C+D's intrepid team of investigative journalists and an Freedom of Information enquiry to uncover what I have called “pharmacy-gate”, and get hold of all the documents. It’s a truly revealing read.  Even Teresa May’s beloved “JAMs” (people who are just about managing) simply love us.

I think some serious parliamentary questions must surely now be asked, about why the NHS ignored its own consultation, which could have been used to inform an NHS Community Pharmacy Forward View.

Instead, in an act of political vandalism, health secretary Jeremy Hunt decided to irretrievably damage the community pharmacy network.


Tony Schofield, Community pharmacist


Keith Ridge in my pharmacy 2 months ago praised the work we were doing and enthusiastically discussed the Murray report. When asked what he wanted from us he encouraged us to take advantage of the PhIF. Since then the Murray report has been binned and at a conference this week community pharmacy was hardly mentioned. 

what has happened? We were portrayed by the Government solicitor as lurking in the back and great capital was made of Boots selling sandwiches- possibly an allusion to the untold riches we enjoy whilst subsidised by the NHS. Such offensive comments are government belief or their lawyer wouldn't be parroting them. Why are we now being portrayed as leeches despite the growing evidence that we are taking heat out of GPs and A&E meltdown and willing to do more.

We are owed an explanation 

Andrew Martin, Primary care pharmacist

The Community Pharmacy CTA is available here:

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