Negotiations on the next Community Pharmacy Contractual Framework have begun, but Community Pharmacy England (CPE) has warned the sector to avoid having too high expectations of its outcome.

Speaking to delegates at the 2024 Sigma Conference by live video link, Janet Morrison, CPE chief executive, confirmed the negotiator had recently met with the government for the first discussion on the next contract.

But she raised doubts that the negotiations would be concluded in time for the next financial year and suggested that the sector needed to be ‘realistic’ about the possibility the pharmacy contract would be imposed.

Ms Morrison highlighted challenges placing a ‘systemic squeeze’ on the community pharmacy sector, describing cash flow pressures, closures and workforce issues.

Pressures would ‘only increase’ with the introduction of the National Living Wage, which CPE estimates will cost the sector £150-195m for the rest of the year after it is introduced in April.

‘And of course, there’s not provision for that, [the increase in labour costs] just comes out of that already fairly squeezed spot that we’re in,’ Ms Morrison said.

She added that the recent £65m primary care recovery plan funding for Pharmacy First and other services ‘will not solve our funding crisis’ but suggested that it gave the sector ‘leverage’ in the current negotiations ‘to say you can’t have super rich icing on the collapsing cake, you need us to be open in order to deliver Pharmacy First’.

Ms Morrison warned contractors not to expect ‘revolutionary’ change in the 2024-25 contractual framework, instead saying that the negotiator was trying to create ‘building blocks’ to lay the groundwork for next year’s negotiations.

The negotiator is ‘operating on the principle that there are no new services without new funding’, Ms Morrison said.

But she warned that the negotiations would ‘inevitably’ be governed by the government’s spending review, ‘so we’re unlikely to get something that really breaks the bank because it will be constrained by those parameters [and] by the other huge pressures on NHS funding and public spending pressures'.

And she anticipated there would be pushback over any asks for more money given the recent £645m investment in the sector.

CPE will be calling for additional core funding; an agreed mechanism for an annual uplift to funding and fees; a write-off of any money owed by the sector for over-delivery; fundamental reform of the margin delivery framework; an economic review of the supply chain; and for the efficiencies promised in the last contract to be delivered.

But she warned the sector to be ‘realistic’ about the fact the government ‘can always impose’ the contract.

Ms Morrison added the negotiator would ‘always try and close the gap’ between what the government and community pharmacy want, while also trying to ensure the sector did not lose ground that had already been won.

Later in the conference Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), said that the negotiator should ‘hold firm’ and ‘not accept' any imposition of the pharmacy contract.

And she said that the sector ‘must have a strategy’ in mind if the outcome of negotiations were not what the sector wanted.

General practitioners in England and Wales have mooted strike action in response to an imposed contract.

In The Pharmacist’s summer survey last year, half of pharmacist respondents told us they would consider strike action or withdrawing their services, although sector leaders highlighted the importance of protecting patients.