More than 15% of community pharmacies in England have signed up to provide the NHS Pharmacy Contraception Service, The Pharmacist can reveal.

According to figures from the NHS Business Services Authority, 1,748 pharmacies signed up to provide the service between 24 April, when sign-up for the service opened, and 18 June.

This equates to of the 10,979 pharmacy premises registered in England as of 30 June 2023, according to the most recent data from the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC).

Of those, 238 are part of multiple chain Asda, 22 are Boots branches, 10 are Well pharmacies, five are Tesco pharmacies, two are LloydsPharmacy branches and two are owned by Morrisons Supermarkets.

Many others are part of independent multiple chains and groups, such as Paydens, Jhoots and Cohen’s Chemist, while others are individual independent pharmacies.

The findings are from a Freedom of Information request submitted by The Pharmacist around the time the service launched in April.

The Pharmacist has attempted to contact all those pharmacies named for comment.

Lincolnshire Co-op Chemists told The Pharmacist that it had participated in a local pilot for the service, and paid for staff in 16 branches to complete the relevant training. It said that it then ‘signed up these branches to the national service, to utilise the training our colleagues had already completed’.

And it said that it had been ‘proactive in promoting the service at local levels’, and that seven of the 16 branches offering the service have already provided it to patients.

A spokesperson for LloydsPharmacy told The Pharmacist that the multiple welcomed the launch of the service ‘and the opportunity for pharmacies to offer local communities a broader range of services that will improve their access to healthcare and advice’.

But they said that ‘with community pharmacy facing a number of resourcing challenges’, LloydsPharmacy had been ‘limited in its ability to be involved in the initial launch of the service’.

‘In the meantime, LloydsPharmacy continues to review its offerings to ensure it remains responsive to the changing needs of its local communities,’ they added.

Many of the participating pharmacies are located in cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, while take up seems to be lower in more rural areas such as Cornwall.

The Pharmacy Contraception Service was launched in April and allows pharmacists to manage the ongoing monitoring and supply of repeat oral contraception prescriptions, and will be extended to allow pharmacists to initiate oral contraception via a Patient Group Direction (PGD) from October 2023.

Responding to our findings, Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp) commented that ‘clearly the ability of community pharmacies to provide these types of services is going to be patchy and unpredictable’ because of funding shortfalls and disparities.

She said: ‘Until our core funding shortfall of £1.1bn is corrected and we are paid a professional fee for delivering professional services and the NHS puts [us] on the same level playing field as GP practices regarding funding for workforce, then, clearly the ability of community pharmacies to provide these types of services is going to be patchy and unpredictable.

‘The payment for this service simply does not make a professional fee for a professional service.’

Dr Hannbeck stressed this must be recognised during negotiations on such services.

She explained that each pharmacy consultation would involve several different elements including reviewing the patient’s current contraception, measuring their height, weight and BMI and completing a blood pressure check.

She estimated that this would take ‘at least 20 minutes per patient to be done properly’, and pharmacies would be paid ‘just £18’ per consultation. ‘GP's always get way above this level of payment for their time,’ suggested Dr Hannbeck.

And she said that there was ‘muddled thinking’ on the roll out of the service, further increasing disparity with GP provision.

For example, Dr Hannbeck explained that with 12-month prescribing for contraceptives by GPs reportedly ‘increasing’, patients might be less likely to ‘visit a pharmacy multiple times for the same number of months’ supply’.

And she highlighted that with longer prescribing cycles, patients would not present at the pharmacy for ongoing management of their contraceptive until one year after it was initiated at the GP surgery.

It appears that most of the pharmacies that signed up to provide the service did so within the first two weeks of registration being open, before an additional £645m for community pharmacy was announced, which was in part to go towards the Pharmacy Contraception Service.

And there was a slight increase in sign-ups after the funding was announced, as well as after both May bank holiday weekends.

To sign up to provide the service, contractors are required to declare that they can meet the terms of the specification, which includes the training and competence of the staff delivering the service.

Upon signing up, contractors are paid £400, with an additional £250 paid after submitting a claim for the first five consultations and a further £250 paid after claiming for a further five consultations.

And if a pharmacy contractor wants to stop providing the service, they must deregister via , giving at least one month’s notice. If this happens, or the contractor stops trading within 30 days of registration, they will not be eligible for the £400 set up fee, and if it has already been paid it will be claimed back by the NHSBSA.

In April, The Pharmacist exclusively revealed that just 456 out of 11,222 community pharmacies in England had signed up for the new Pharmacy Contraception Service within the first two days of the option being available to contractors.

Multiple Day Lewis was among those not offering the service amid concerns over inadequate funding for the sector, despite having trained all its staff.

The launch of the service was met with opposition from the sector, with the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) calling for the roll out to be paused the day after it went live.

Gareth Jones, director for corporate affairs at the NPA told The Pharmacist this week that when the new contraception service was announced without any new funding, the association ‘took the difficult decision to urge NPA members to pause their engagement with it’.

‘With all existing funds in effect already allocated to other pharmacy activity, we believe any payments to pharmacies for delivery of the service would ultimately have been clawed back by NHS England. Naturally, the NPA could not support roll out on such terms.

‘We were clear that pharmacies wanted to offer women this extra support, but if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing properly.’

He added: ‘NHS England has subsequently announced that there will be new funding for the contraception service – along with the common conditions service. Full details are still subject to negotiation.

‘Once sufficient funding is available, we look forward to supporting our members in delivering these new services. They will all improve patient care and provide a platform for further commissioning of services leading to a more sustainable future for our members.’

After the £645m of additional funding was announced for the sector, including for the Pharmacy Contraception Service, Community Pharmacy England (CPE) said that its position on the service – that due to stretched capacity within the sector more money would be needed to safely resource additional work – was ‘unchanged’.

In a statement earlier this week, CPE said that negotiations with DHSC and NHSE were on track to reach an agreement this month, with cross-government clearance later in July, and implementation from July through to September.

And it said that it was involved in a working group relating to the Pharmacy Contraception Scheme, and was in in-depth negotiations around the balance between funding core capacity and activity payments, how the funding streams will be distributed and how delivery and impact will be measured.

Ashley Cohen, a community pharmacist and owner of independent group Pharm-Assist said that he was ‘amazed’ at the number of pharmacies that had signed up to provide the service.

‘I’ve ignored it, and I don’t feel I’m missing out or losing out on it at all,’ he told The Pharmacist.

He said that he had chosen not to register his pharmacies to provide the service as it required lots of investment in staff training, and he did not think that the service would yield enough custom to be worth it.

While he said the service offered ‘huge potential’ for community pharmacy, he felt that it was ‘not the right time’ to get involved in providing it due to workload and funding issues, as well as being focused on other areas such as providing the spring Covid-19 booster injections.

‘I’m going to wait and see what will happen when some of this new money filters down because I want to see the breakdown of it and what’s involved, because I think there needs to be some restoration of our funding to start with. I’m all in favour of new services and new funding, but it didn’t feel enough for me to get excited about the project,’ he said.

‘For me, we need to fix the way that we’re paid, drug tariffs, concessional prices, all that kind of easy stuff to fix, how we’re funded, build up some capacity and resilience in our staff, before we ask them to do any new service,’ he added.