Community pharmacy is not in a position to relieve pressure on the NHS by taking on additional patient care during NHS strike action, the chair of the National Pharmacy Association has said.

Andrew Lane joined other pharmacy leaders in warning that the community pharmacy sector is already overstretched and cannot provide additional services without extra funding.  Speaking today in Parliament, Mr Lane said: ‘I don’t believe we are in a position to strike bust’.

This comes despite a report in The Telegraph this weekend suggesting that pharmacists might be asked to take on additional responsibilities during strike action, such as diagnosing patients with minor conditions and prescribing antibiotics.

Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, described the situation as 'unacceptable'. 'We can't do anything, and we won't be able to do anything without more funding.'

'Enough is enough in terms of pharmacies doing more for less, carrying everything on our shoulders without being recognised for it,' she added.

Janet Morrison, Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) chief executive, explained that although pharmacies would be capable of supporting the NHS with more support, they are also struggling this winter.

She said: ‘Community pharmacy teams have repeatedly shown that they have the skills, ambition and accessibility to help support patients and the NHS through moments of crisis. But this winter, pharmacies are approaching their own crisis as years of underfunding, efficiency squeezes and workforce problems take their toll.

‘Pharmacy teams are in the same position as their health service colleagues – exhausted, overworked, and struggling to make ends meet.  If Government wants pharmacies to step up again, they will need to back this with emergency funding and support.’

One PSNC member – Fin McCaul, PSNC North-West regional representative and independent community contractor – told PSNC that helping out during the NHS strikes would be ‘categorically impossible’ without extra funding.

Reena Barai, PSNC committee member and independent community pharmacy contractor, said: ‘A cocktail of issues including medicine supply problems and workforce shortages mean that pharmacists will be unable to push themselves further on current budgets. To add this sort of level of service to what we’re already doing – it would buckle the whole sector.’

‘Pharmacies cannot ride to the rescue for free’

The suggestion for pharmacies to be drafted into help during the NHS strikes comes as many within the sector have complained that pharmacies are being asked to do more with less.

While an ongoing NHS campaign has encouraged patients to visit their community pharmacy for free, walk-in advice, Ms Morrison recently told The Pharmacist that a ‘Pharmacy First’ scheme to fund community pharmacies to deliver this service in England was shelved because the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) would not agree to the funding package proposed by PSNC.

Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association, said today that while he welcomed plans for Pharmacy First, he said that ‘the Government’s plans must be funded appropriately – pharmacies cannot ride to the rescue for free’.

He added that ‘spiralling inflation, rising costs of medicines and workforce shortages’ had put the pharmacy network on the brink of collapse’, and that ‘after eight years of funding cuts, the pressures on community pharmacies are simply untenable’.

Last month, the health and social care secretary, Steve Barclay, said that he was ‘looking at how we can progress Pharmacy First’.

Alastair Buxton, PSNC’s Director of NHS Services said that PSNC had been talking to NHSE and DHSC about a fully funded Pharmacy First package for over a year, and ‘if they are ready to negotiate, so are we’.

‘But discussions will need to include consideration of the current very fragile state of the community pharmacy network and the need for additional funding,’ he added.

‘Current funding is limited’

In a separate statement earlier this week, Mr Lane said the capacity of community pharmacies ‘no longer matches the demands made of the sector’, and that changes to opening hours would be one inevitable consequence.

This came after PSNC announced that it was in discussions with DHSC and NHS England about measures to relieve pressures on community pharmacies, such as a relaxation of pharmacy opening hours requirements, similar to what was in place during the pandemic.

PSNC said that some contractors were already taking or considering measures to both protect patient safety and cut costs, such as:

  • Not answering patient phone calls, or only doing so for a limited amount of time each day
  • Asking patients to book slots for advice, rather than providing this on a walk-in basis
  • Charging for or stopping provision of some unfunded services such as medicines deliveries

It is also hosting a series of webinars to hear from contractors about the pressures they are facing and what steps they might be willing to take in future, should emergency relief not be forthcoming.

Last month, contractors called on PSNC to take a stronger stance in negotiations with DHSC, with some suggesting that pharmacies could take action like refusing to dispense medicines at a loss or stopping providing free advice for patients.

PSNC’s legal director, Gordon Hockey, said that the actions that some contractors are taking are not strike, but measures to reduce the provision of some services that pharmacies are allowed to – but don’t have to – offer under the Community Pharmacy Contractual Framework.

He said that some contractors may also consider that they are unable to continue to offer free services associated with NHS services, which would impact on patients but help to ease workload and capacity issues and ensure patient safety.

‘These are serious steps which need discussion’, he said, adding that the upcoming PSNC events would allow for ‘honest conversation’ to ensure that ‘contractors consider, and Government and the NHS appreciate, what remains possible within the current limited funding’.