Pharmacies contracted to open for 100 hours a week will be allowed to reduce their core hours under new regulatory easements introduced by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and NHS England (NHSE).

And all pharmacies will be able to close for rest breaks – provided their total number of core opening hours remains the same – and coordinate opening hours with other contractors within their Integrated Care Board to manage closures and maintain patient access through a ‘local hours plan’.

The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) said it had opposed this package of regulatory changes relating to pharmacy opening hours and rest breaks because they were ‘wholly inadequate’ to address the ‘crippling pressures’ facing community pharmacy. However, they said it had been imposed by DHSC and NHSE.

100-hour pharmacies allowed to reduce to 72 hours

In particular, PSNC said that it opposed the changes affecting 100-hour pharmacies in the ‘strongest possible terms’. It described the move as ‘divisive’ and said it should be ‘matched with provisions for all other contractors who are facing the same pressures’.

‘We believe that it is unwise for the NHS to interfere with the level playing field for contractors in such a difficult economic climate,’ PSNC wrote in a briefing document on the regulatory changes.

Under the changes, pharmacies contracted to open for 100 hours per week will be allowed to reduce their core opening hours to no less than 72 hours per week.

This must include 5pm-9pm Monday to Saturday – during which time PSNC understood that no rest breaks were permitted – and 11am-4pm on Sundays, during which time a rest break may be inserted. But the total number of hours that the pharmacy is open for on a Sunday must remain the same.

One contractor on Twitter described the changes as an ‘absolute kick in the face for 90% of pharmacies that are standard hours’.

He suggested that 100-hour pharmacy owners had ‘leapfrogged existing contractors’ and were now getting ‘preferential treatment’.

‘Disgraceful. 100-hours pharmacies survive while everyone else goes to the wall’, he wrote on Twitter.

But one 100-hour pharmacy owner described Mr Armstrong’s comments as ‘harsh’.

He suggested that the ‘majority’ of 100-hour pharmacy owners ‘could never have dreamed’ of owning a pharmacy, but were able to do so under the 100-hour contract.

‘They’ve [been] allowed to reduce by 28 hours but our hours are still 32 hours above a standard 40 hour pharmacy so there’s still a lot of hard work and sacrifice to be made by 100 hour pharmacies,’ he wrote on Twitter.

Rest breaks allowed – but will extend the working day

PSNC said that it had sought the introduction of rest breaks deducted from core opening hours, but DHSC introduced a mechanism for pharmacies to notify their ICB of rest break closures, as long as they maintain the same number of core opening hours.

Under the changes, contractors will be able to notify their ICB of new or modified rest breaks and, at least five weeks later, will be able to implement the changes.

Rest breaks can be up to one hour long, and more than one rest break is permitted per day. On Mondays to Saturdays, pharmacies can close for a rest break at least three hours after the start and three hours before the end of the pharmacy’s opening hours for the day. Rest breaks can be taken at any time on Sundays.

PSNC said the changes were a ‘straightforward and fast’ way to change or introduce rest breaks, but added that ‘a key disadvantage of the proposal is that the total number of core opening hours remains the same and the length of the working day for pharmacy owners and staff becomes longer’.

Local hours plans to coordinate opening hours and maintain patient access

Under new ‘local hours plans’, contractors will be able to replace their pharmacy’s core and supplementary opening hours with temporary opening hours, following agreement with their ICB.

This aims to reduce temporary closures and maintain patient access by coordinating opening hours across pharmacies within a local area.

Participation in a local hours plan is voluntary, and must be approved by the ICB.

They may be introduced from 25 May 2023, but PSNC warned that they ‘do not enable contractors to respond quickly to changing circumstances, pressures and demands and their introduction is largely at the discretion of ICBs’.

‘Disappointing response’ on business continuity plans

From 31 July 2023, contractors must have business continuity plans in place so that responses to temporary closures, or temporary suspensions of pharmaceutical services, are standardised across the sector.

Under the new business continuity plans, contractors must record their preparations for any unplanned temporary closures, including setting out a series of actions that they will carry out if a temporary closure is likely to happen, or happens.

But PSNC said that the change ‘places additional burdens on contractors and suggests a desire to resort to regulatory force rather than the NHS working with the sector to arrive at a reasonable solution’.

‘We believe this proposal is a disappointing response to our request, on behalf of contractors, for help in the face of workforce pressures,’ the negotiating body said.

Contractors would be facing unplanned temporary closures in circumstances ‘when they are least able to manage additional burdens’, PSNC said.

‘There is greater emphasis on the technical rules, rather than recognition that contractors do their best in difficult circumstances,’ it added.

Other regulatory amendments, including changes to fitness information and the procedures for applying to change core opening hours and notifying changes of supplementary opening hours, have also been introduced.