Locum pharmacist Harpreet Khara discusses his return to practice in 2020 and why the sector deserves a pay rise.

Where to begin? It is 2021 and the novel coronavirus pandemic is here. My phone is vibrating with phone numbers I've not seen for years. I left pharmacy several years ago and thought I'd help out while relieving lockdown boredom.

I qualified as a pharmacist back at the turn of the millennium, over 20 years ago. I am recalling the dot-com stock market bubble even as I write observing the latest cryptocurrency rises. I have the latest iPhone pro max or whatever it is. Mobile phones back then were ubiquitously Nokia, used mostly to text SMS and play Snake in LCD monochrome. No Twitter, Tinder or even WiFi. Instead of the coronavirus, we had a computer bug named Y2K that was going to crash economies and aeroplanes at midnight. In fact, nothing happened.

I completed my training in Royal Leamington Spa and began work managing a small independent community pharmacy. It was a slower pace of life back then and in hindsight fortunate. I was ambitious and by 22 had already exchanged the Toyota for a sports car. University education was less accessible, but it was also free to attend and you could start fresh. Pay rates were £17-19 an hour with £25-30/hour emergency rates on weekends. There was a shortage of pharmacists due to the extension of pharmacy degrees to four years. After a year, I had left my permanent position to work for myself and have never looked back since.

I am writing this opinion piece now because for my entire professional life community pharmacists have been told to be grateful for the kudos, to work harder for ever diminishing returns. I have always questioned that logic as an investor in myself. When I asked a pharmacy recently for a £1/hour increase they refused. Twenty years of experience mean nothing, and claps don't pay the bills.

Same old story. In 2001, I wrote to a pharmacy journal expressing some consternation at budget cuts. At the time our Chancellor, the Rt Hon. Gordon Brown had just allocated an extra £1bn to be injected into the National Health Service and into private healthcare. Yet pharmacy was excluded? The profession was not even mentioned as a footnote.

The excuses have not changed in two decades. Now we are in 2021, amidst rising pharmacy closures and a global pandemic. Yet I see no funding to tackle the coronavirus pandemic? Our praises are sung, and the standard go-to response is that we are underutilised and must do more to relieve pressure on GPs. SAVE THE NHS, RINSE AND REPEAT.

I guess our work is all done by itself; anyone can stick a label on a box right? The people who believe this wouldn’t last half an hour in a busy pharmacy.

I follow politics avidly, and it seems that for our MPs the pharmacy brief has only ever been a rung on the ladder to more prestigious posts. By the time you remember their names, they have moved on and nothing has changed for the better.

Pharmacist pay rates took a dive around 2002 and never really recovered. Locums received a letter from one large pharmacy chain stating £15/hr was the new rate down from £19. Corporates chains evolved and in my view, became concerned with hitting targets rather than our welfare. This was not the profession I had joined.

I worked in over 400 pharmacies from 2001 until 2009, when the Swine Flu H1 N1 pandemic hit with force. We soldiered through it, and exactly like today we were forgotten. In fact, staffing levels were cut and prescription volumes rocketed. I froze one day in the dispensary mid-shift with fatigue, and asked myself if it was it all worth it? I walked out, and it was several years before I returned.

Leaving was a turning point. I enrolled myself at the local university and gained a first class degree in photography three years later. I travelled the world and completed a Masters in London at Central Saint Martins. Upon returning from London, I settled back in Warwickshire for the quiet life.

Which brings me back to my recent return to the dispensary part-time. After several years of wandering art galleries, photographic studios and shooting on catwalks, you do see things differently to your peers. I see shockingly low pay and lack of respect, low staff morale and unrealistic expectations from the public and government with the resources allocated.

I have seen this cycle repeated many times, so forgive my cynicism as I watched pharmacy leaders applaud in 2019 a soupçon of enthusiasm from PM Boris Johnson. Election-time handshakes and photographs and very little else.

Returning to practice, I have seen small to medium size pharmacies go under. The sheer volume of prescriptions has tripled in pharmacies and despite huge strides in efficiency the staff are worn out. Pharmacy cuts have led to minimal staffing and sometimes dangerous working conditions. In terms of remuneration, many dispensers would be financially better off working on supermarket checkout tills. So, Prime Minister, let’s give the pharmacy sector a pay rise and not just claps.