Pharmacy minister Dame Andrea Leadsom has committed to ensuring the community pharmacy sector is appropriately resourced in order to ensure the success of Pharmacy First, in a parliamentary debate held this week.

But shadow minister Preet Kaur Gill accused the government of ‘giving with one hand and taking with the other’, highlighting the ‘perfect storm of inflationary pressures for running costs, recruitment challenges and an unstable medicines market’ faced by the sector as the new service launches.

This comes as the Liberal Democrat party has warned that staff shortages, funding cuts and pharmacy closures are putting the new Pharmacy First service in England ‘at massive risk’.

Community pharmacists ‘expert medicines suppliers’

During the debate, Labour MP for Knowsley and vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on pharmacy Sir George Howarth suggested that community pharmacists are struggling to do everything expected of them even before Pharmacy First was introduced, citing ‘a lack of capacity’ and problems accessing medicines.

In response, Dame Andrea said that the ‘vast majority’ of medicines were ‘in good supply’.

She told MPs that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) ‘works very closely’ with the sector ‘on finding alternatives and sourcing supplies of medicines’, claiming that ‘most of the time we are able to meet the demand’.

‘Occasionally there are challenges, but that does not change in any way the ability of community pharmacists to be the expert medicine suppliers that they are,’ Dame Andrea added.

But earlier this week the pharmacy minister’s suggestion that community pharmacists do not have enough oversight of medicines supply to amend prescriptions where necessary drew backlash from the sector.

Availability of pharmacies ‘very good’ but ‘under review’

Members of parliament also raised the issue of pharmacy access during the debate on Wednesday.

Conservative MP for Horsham Jeremy Quin cited problems with access to pharmacies in his constituency, asking the minister if she would ‘ensure that the sector is appropriately resourced and has the right training in order to ensure that the [Pharmacy First] scheme is the great success that it deserves to be?’

Dame Andrea responded: ‘Absolutely, and I am always happy to discuss that further with my right hon. Friend.’

Meanwhile, Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex Bernard Jenkin, shared concerns about areas with large populations that did not have out-of-hours pharmacy cover.

He said that in Harwich and Dovercourt in his constituency ‘people have to make a round trip of more than 40 miles to collect a prescription on a Sunday’.

In response, Dame Andrea said: ‘Pharmacists will keep their community pharmacy open for up to 72 hours a week in most cases, and up to 100 hours in some cases, which means there is weekend accessibility. We keep this under review, but the availability is very good.’

Pharmacies are ‘opening and closing’

Several MPs, including Liberal Democrat MP and spokesperson for health and social care Daisy Cooper, asked the minister what steps she was taking to guard against pharmacy closures.

‘We see pharmacies opening and closing,’ Dame Andrea said in response.

‘There has been a small number of net closures, but we are very well served across England and we keep a close eye on that. Pharmacy First is a new boost to community pharmacies across England,’ she added.

Meanwhile, Labour (Co-op) MP for Huddersfield Barry Sheerman, highlighted the closure of a Boots branch in Westminster, as well as asking the minister if she had looked into pharmacy closures in the poorest areas of the country.

Dame Andrea suggested that the more deprived parts of England ‘are much better served by community pharmacies than better-off areas are.’

And when Labour MP for Exeter Ben Bradshaw asked her why a ‘record number’ of pharmacies had closed under this government, Dame Andrea responded with a comment on pharmacist training numbers, saying: ‘There has been a 61% increase in registered pharmacists since 2010, with plans to increase that number by 50% in the next few years.’

‘NHS tariff does not pay full price’

Conservative MP for Witham and former home secretary Priti Patel asked Dame Andrea to look into the issue of medicines funding.

‘Community pharmacies are struggling, and she will understand that the NHS tariff does not pay them the full price of products,’ she said.

In response, Dame Andrea cited the £2.6 billion annual community pharmacy funding, ‘quite apart from the £645m addition for Pharmacy First’.

And she added that negotiations were ‘about to start’ for the 2024-25 period.

Pharmacist ‘using savings’ and ‘not paying themselves a wage’

Labour MP for Croydon Central Sarah Jones raised concerns that the three pharmacies in one town within her constituency were ‘all on the edge of having to close’.

‘To stay open, one pharmacist is using their own savings and not paying themselves a wage,’ she told the minister, asking her to read a letter from the constituent.

Dame Andrea replied: ‘I am of course happy to read the letter, but I would say that Pharmacy First offers a significant new boost to community pharmacies.’