Despite Mr Hunt’s numerous pledges to ‘engage more’ with the pharmacy sector, many pharmacists will likely remember him as the man heading up the department behind the funding cuts to English community pharmacy in 2016.
Despised or loved, Mr Hunt has shaken the pharmacy profession and his legacy will certainly affect the sector for years to come.
Theresa May’s unexpected reshuffle comes after Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP Boris Johnson yesterday announced his decision to step down as foreign secretary over a Brexit dispute.
Originally elected Conservative MP for South West Surrey in May 2005, Mr Hunt became health secretary in September 2012 before being given additional social care responsibilities in the cabinet reshuffle in January 2018.
How did Mr Hunt shape pharmacy?
Even though Mr Hunt was the longest-serving health secretary ever, he became infamous among pharmacists following his department’s decision to cut the funding to English community pharmacy in 2016.
Back in 2016, the Government imposed a two-year funding package on the sector, with the aim of cutting £113m of funding in that year alone.
As a result, total community pharmacy funding was reduced by 4% in 2016/17 – from £2.8bn the previous year to £2.7bn – and 3.4% in 2017/18 down to £2.6bn.
At that time, the Government argued that the cuts were ‘necessary’ as part of wider efficiency savings – a £22bn efficiency requirement by 2020/21 – being made across the NHS.
But Mr Hunt seemed to appreciate the impact that the cuts had on the sector.
Speaking at the NHS Confederation conference last year, he said: ‘I recognise that it has been a difficult period for the pharmacy sector.
‘We have asked you to make savings just as we have asked every other part of the NHS and social care system to make efficiency savings but let’s be clear – this is not about seeing a smaller role for pharmacy but seeing a different and bigger role for pharmacy.
‘We want a closer relationship with pharmacists but it is a different relationship.
‘I feel that we have not exploited the tremendous skills that pharmacists have nearly as effective as we might, but I am more than happy to engage with you more personally.’
What effects did the cuts have?
The funding cuts were accompanied by financial incentives – including a Pharmacy Access Scheme (PhAS), a £75m Quality Payments Scheme (QPS) and a £42m Pharmacy Integration Fund (PhIF) – which would lead to ‘better value for money in pharmaceutical services, while ensuring that everybody retains ready access to a community pharmacy’, according to then-pharmacy minister David Mowat in 2016.
But despite these and Mr Hunt’s self-proclaimed support for pharmacy, the sector has been profoundly affected by the cuts, with many businesses on the brink of collapse.
Between November 2016 and April 2018, 134 bricks and mortar pharmacies closed while 63 distance-selling pharmacies opened. Many contractors have also reported to The Pharmacist that they are barely coping, with one Hertfordshire contractor losing a staggering £200,000 across his business.
In May, national pharmacy bodies the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) and the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) took Mr Hunt’s funding cuts decision before the Court of Appeal following an unsuccessful High Court challenge to cuts, arguing that he had ‘failed to properly consider the impact of the cuts in deprived areas’.
New secretary, new hope?
Although it is still early days, Mr Hancock’s new appointment might be a positive step toward change in pharmacy.
As a former business minister and having worked for his family business, he might appreciate the difficulties and pressures experienced by numerous independents at the moment and step in to make the changes everybody has been waiting for.