Pharmacists in England have begun to protest in response to the Government’s so far refusing to write off the £370m debt the sector was given as a support loan during the pandemic.

The protests will take place throughout the week in the constituencies of several Government ministers, including the health secretary, the Prime Minister and the chancellor.

This comes after the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) highlighted to the Guardian newspaper last month that some pharmacists were considering protest action unless the Treasury wrote off the debt.

One of the pharmacists joining the protests, Jonathan Cooper, owner of Coopers Chemists in the Richmond constituency of chancellor Rishi Sunak in Yorkshire, said: ‘My pharmacy and many others like it have continued to see patients in the community while other parts of the health system could not offer this vital service.

‘Had community pharmacies not worked so hard to keep their doors open during this national crisis, things would have been far worse. As a result we have incurred massive extra costs and the Government needs to cover this as promised.’

He added: ‘We want to give a message to Mr Sunak: our door is open – please let us keep it that way by reversing these devastating cuts!’

In March 2020, the chancellor promised the NHS would get whatever resources it needed to tackle the pandemic.

No mention in budget

Ahead of the budget announcement last week, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) asked the chancellor to write off the £370m Covid debt, or risk more pharmacy closures.

In a letter to the chancellor, Simon Dukes, chief executive of PSNC said that analysis conducted by the negotiator suggested pharmacies’ costs are now at more than £400m and are continuing to rise.

‘This money has been spent on carrying out services for the NHS in a Covid-secure environment,’ he explained.

He added: ‘Community pharmacy contractors must have their costs fully covered and they must not be asked to subsidise the NHS.’

In response to a question asked at a Downing Street Covid briefing last month (10 February), Boris Johnson said that he wanted to ‘make sure’ that pharmacies are ‘reimbursed as soon as possible [for their additional costs during the pandemic]’, adding that he did not want to see any pharmacies close.

However, when Mr Sunak announced his financial statement last week he made no mention of the sector, or future plans to cover pharmacies’ Covid costs.

Mark Lyonette, chief executive officer of the NPA said the protests ‘bring the matter close to home for the decision-makers, in their own constituencies’.

‘The Government continues to drag its feet over offering proper financial assistance for pharmacies,’ he said.

He added: ‘The Prime Minister promised to give the NHS whatever it needs to cope with coronavirus and pharmacies are a vital part of the NHS frontline.

‘We need the Government to make good on commitments to meet all the additional costs associated with coronavirus and also address long-term underfunding - so that pharmacies can stay open to keep people well and save lives.’

A study commissioned by the NPA last year estimated that almost three-quarters of independent pharmacies in England could be forced to close by 2024 if current contractual arrangements remain unchanged.

The analysis conducted by Ernst and Young (EY) found the sector was underfunded by £497m – with 72% of pharmacies forecast to be loss-making within four years. It estimated that the average pharmacy will be losing £43k a year by 2024.