Dispensing is at its highest level in five years with 1,036 million prescription items dispensed by community pharmacies in 2019/20, new NHS data has revealed.

This is an increase of 4% since 2015/16, figures published by NHS Business Service Authority yesterday (19 November) showed, and follows a period between 2016/17 and 2018/19 where the annual number of items dispensed remained stable – between 1,013 and 1,016 million.

The General Pharmaceutical Services in England 2015/16 - 2019/20 report looked at the services carried out by community pharmacies in England and their associated costs over a five-year period - from April 2015 to March 2020.

While the report found pharmacies had been dispensing more items in 2019/20, it also revealed a rise in community pharmacy closures over the same period.

There were 405 closures in 2019/20, the report found, bringing the total of active pharmacies in England to 11,800 – the lowest number since 2015/16.

The data also showed that the number of community pharmacies had decreased for two consecutive years - by 1.22% between 2017/18 and 2019/20.

Due to the lowest number of community pharmacies and highest number of items dispensed since 2015/16, the average number of items dispensed per pharmacy was 87,600 – a 5.15% increase on 2015/16 and the highest level in the past five years.

‘Very dangerous position’

Previous NHS Business Service Authority data, published in June, found that March 2020 had been the busiest month on record for dispensing.

The increase in demand for medications came as the country faced a national lockdown and patients feared drug shortages as a result of Covid-19.

In response to the latest data, Simon Dukes, PSNC chief executive, said: ‘PSNC warned Ministers in February that many community pharmacies were in a very dangerous position as the workload increased but no progress was made to release capacity.

‘Despite contractors' best efforts (including dipping into their own money), many have had to make difficult decisions in recent years with sometimes disastrous impacts on staff and local communities. Covid-19 has worsened the situation.’

He added: ‘PSNC is still waiting for responses on its bids for a CPCF funding uplift and for the £370m in advance payments to be written off. HM Government must act: without this additional support, we could see mass closures and redundancies in the next 18 months. This would have a catastrophic impact on patients and is utterly counterintuitive in a global health crisis.’

Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association, said the data confirmed ‘many of the challenges’ facing the community pharmacy sector.

He added: ‘There has been a clear increase in the volumes of prescribed items, along with an increase in the cost of the medicines. These increases are clearly not reflected in the way in which the sector is funded, with overall funding remaining unchanged. When coupled will with the other rising costs of running a business, such as salaries, rent and rates, it is not at all surprising to see pharmacies closing.

‘We call on NHS England and DHSC to engage in meaningful discussions with the sector to ensure that patients’ access to high quality professional care is not adversely affected as the sector continues to work hard to overcome the challenges that it has faced since this data was collected.’

Flu vaccinations

The NHSBSA report also showed that the average number of flu vaccinations administered per community pharmacy in 2019/20 was more than double the 2015/16 figure. Last winter (2019/20), a pharmacy administered 185 flu vaccinations on average, compared with 83 in 2015/16, it found.

According to data collated by PSNC, this year (2020/21) English pharmacies broke last year's flu vaccine record in just two months of the service starting, vaccinating more than 1.7 million patients by November.