Chief Executive’s blog: October 2020

Chief Executive’s blog: October 2020

“Why has there been no reassurance that pharmacy’s COVID-19 costs will be covered?”

By Chief Executive Simon Dukes

As we await a response from HM Government to our COVID-19 costs and CPCF uplift funding bids, the question I keep returning to is: ‘What haven’t we done?’ The Government promised to give the NHS all it needed to cope with the pandemic, so why has it not yet agreed to do this for community pharmacies: what more can the sector possibly do to prove itself?

Looking back, the year started with so many positives: evidence of the effectiveness of NHS 111 referrals to the Community Pharmacist Consultation Service (CPCS); an agreed Hepatitis C Testing Service for community pharmacy; and even bigger projects on the horizon including the (now named) Discharge Medicines Service and new Pharmacy Quality Scheme criteria.

Then the pandemic struck.

This resulted in disruption and huge shocks to the sector: a sudden spike in dispensing volumes; panicked patients seeking advice and reassurance, while stockpiling essential items; the introduction virtually overnight of radical new ways of working; and all with a backdrop of financial uncertainty. Yet, throughout it all, the dispensing of vital medicines and provision of healthcare advice continued. We should be proud to keep saying that ‘the doors to pharmacies remained open’ – they really did – and the flow of patients seeking help for minor (and not so minor) ailments increased. Yes, some of those big 2020 projects were rightly postponed, but that was with the agreement of the NHS and it enabled community pharmacies to concentrate on supporting the NHS through the worst healthcare crisis in generations.

Now we are in the second wave, and pharmacies continue to work under unprecedented pressures and to deliver on everything being asked of them. Patients are still being seen despite the health risks to pharmacy staff and increasing absences due to illness, exhaustion or just because teams haven’t had a break for months. Medicines are still being dispensed. Flu jabs are being administered at a greater rate than ever before. And rapid discussions are taking place about using the community pharmacy network for even more: COVID-19 testing to supplement the overwhelmed NHS Test and Trace system, as well as possible centres for COVID vaccinations as and when they are approved.

At the request of the NHS we have also unfrozen some of our plans from the start of the year: community pharmacy is braced for the roll-out of the GP adjunct to the CPCS from this month. Additionally, the Healthy Living Pharmacy framework is becoming an Essential Service, and the Discharge Medicines Service is being prepared for roll-out in January 2021.

It is hard to imagine what more community pharmacies could do to demonstrate their resilience, agility, value and willingness to be part of the NHS family. It also seems obvious that in a health crisis spanning the globe and hitting our country hard, the skills of an army of clinicians on the high street who purchase (and dispense) medicines cheaper than any other country in the world and provide instant access to healthcare advice to anyone who needs it, are needed now more than ever.

So why is this Government still not providing the much-needed reassurance to pharmacies that their (ongoing) COVID-19 costs will be fully covered?

I believe the answer lies somewhere in the depths of Whitehall. Somewhere, numbers are being crunched without any reference to what pharmacies do or appreciation of the extent to which local communities rely on them. We know that Ministers do understand our sector’s importance – they have said this repeatedly – but in each negotiation we hit blocks with the officials in charge of money.

As always, we are battling to overcome those obstacles. There is quite simply nothing more that pharmacies could be doing to help their local communities, support the NHS and provide value to HM Government. In the past months we have presented this case as business data, analysis, projections, case studies and strong value arguments to officials, and we are supporting that with evidence being sent to MPs across all parties. Our message is clear: without additional funding, at least some community pharmacies will not survive this winter. HM Government must waste no more time in agreeing to help them.

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