Just weeks before the nationwide lockdown, John Fowlie and his wife bought a new pharmacy to expand their business. He describes the unforeseen struggles they faced taking over a pharmacy during this uniquely challenging period.
JMF Healthcare, a family-run pharmacy firm in Scotland, bought the E I Mackie pharmacy in Garthdee in Aberdeen, months before the idea of a national lockdown was even feasible.
The company runs three pharmacies in Aberdeen; one in Newtonhill, another in Edzell, and the latest addition in Garthdee.
‘We started renovating the interior of the place in February; at that stage things were fairly normal,’ Mr Fowlie said.
‘The shop was left half ripped apart’
Quickly, however, the situation changed. On 23 March - the day the Scottish government announced lockdown - their plans were abruptly put on hold.
‘The shop was left half ripped apart as none of the builders or joiners could return,’ he said. ‘It was a building site.’
Yet, the pharmacy continued to cater to its patients, even with the building work incomplete. ‘We simply adapted’, explained Mr Fowlie, ‘and put the shop's interior and business plans on hold’.
Instead of making changes to the business, as had been planned, Mr Fowlie focused his attention on providing essential services to residents in the area, including dispensing and delivering prescriptions to customers who are housebound.
The team decided to place the pharmacy desk towards the middle of the shop so that patients didn’t have to come far in to get their prescriptions, ‘We’re also enforcing a one person in the shop at one-time rule to reduce contact,’ he said.
The pharmacy has managed to extend its delivery service, so a lot more deliveries are now being made per day than previously.
However, as the interior renovations had been left half-finished, the shop was in a bit of a mess, ‘there was dust and stuff everywhere, so trying to keep the place clean was an issue,’ the director said.
Because of the pandemic, the new owners have struggled to get themselves known among patients in the town, with concerns that the lack of publicity could be ‘potentially damaging’ to the business.
‘We would have liked to do some more publicity,’ said Mr Fowlie. ‘The fact we’re halfway through our refit means this isn’t possible at the moment.’
‘Indirectly, it has a financial effect on the pharmacy because we would have been able to get more business and customers through more publicity. The half-finished refurb has meant we’ve not been able to move things forward as quickly as would have liked.’
The timing of the pharmacy purchase could have made things very difficult for the business, but Mr Fowlie feels that pharmacies in Scotland have been relatively well looked after.
‘We’ve been very fortunate in that Community Pharmacy Scotland were very quick to negotiate a deal with the Scottish government.
‘This meant we got additional payments upfront to ensure there were no issues with cash flow. During March, when every pharmacy was rushed off their feet, we had much greater drug bills, staff bills; staff absence, and then on top of that we had to buy PPE. CPS was very quick to sort out a payment for us - which ensured we had no issues with all these extra payments.’
The firm is also being supported by a six-figure funding package from Bank of Scotland. The bank has committed to lend up to £18bn to UK businesses this year.
Vivien Bisset, relationship manager at Bank of Scotland, said: 'Although it may not have been the ideal start for John and his team at the Garthdee pharmacy, the work they are doing for the local community is crucial.'