Health minister Neil O’Brien has agreed to meet with community pharmacy stakeholders following a debate in parliament which centred on the significant challenges across the sector.

The debate held yesterday was called by Conservative MP for Waveney Peter Aldous to highlight the role that community pharmacies play and to address the ‘enormous pressures’ they currently face.

The health minister responded to comments from MPs including Sir George Howarth, Steve Brine, Judith Cummins, Esther McVey, Preet Kaur Gill and All-Party Pharmacy Group (APPG) chair Taiwo Owatemi.

And the APPG chair asked Mr O’Brien to commit to meeting with pharmacy stakeholders via the parliamentary group, to which he said that he would.

Medicines supply chain ‘in need of serious love’

Chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee (HSCC) Steve Brine and MP Taiwo Owatemi both raised concerns about the cost of generic medicines.

Mr Brine said that the medicines supply chain was ‘is in need of serious love from ministers’.

‘Pharmacies often have no idea of the prices being charged by wholesalers for some key generics, so they have no idea what is short, while pricing of products is often much higher compared with other European countries; consequently, margins in community pharmacies are often being eroded by uncertainty in the supply chain,’ he said.

And he urged the government to ‘look at a robust system to plan for future pandemics’ and address shortages of key pharmaceuticals, ‘because that undermines the sector and some of its great work’.

Meanwhile Ms Owatemi drew attention to issues around medicine distribution and ‘middlemen supply chain distributors who keep hold of medicines and who are sometimes involved in driving up the prices’. She also noted challenges around the manufacturing of generic medicines.

In particular, she said that UK manufacturers of generics were ‘left at a competitive disadvantage’ because since the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU), the EU had invested around £20bn in the manufacturing of generics, while the UK had invested nothing.

UK manufacturers also have ‘no incentive’ to produce or increase their manufacturing of generic medicines in the UK because legislation allows EU generics to be recognised in the UK but does not allow the EU to recognise UK generics, Ms Owatemi told MPs.

She also said that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency was currently facing ‘significant challenges’.

‘It has lost a large amount of its workforce and is currently unable to process the regulatory applications coming through its doors—again, making it difficult for generic drugs to enter the UK,’ Ms Owatemi said.

And she said that she was already hearing concerns from pharmacies expecting further medicines shortages over winter.

Government ‘closely monitoring pharmacy closures’

In response to concerns raised about pharmacy closures, Mr O’Brien told MPs that ‘despite a number of pharmacies closing since 2017, there are about 10,800 pharmacies today, which is still more than in 2010’.

And he said that ‘rather than focusing merely on numbers, we should look at access’.

Several MPs cited analysis from the Company Chemists’ Association that suggested pharmacy closures were disproportionately affecting more deprived areas.

But Mr O’Brien said that ‘proportionally, the closures that we have seen reflect the spread of pharmacies across England.’

And he said that the government was monitoring changes in the pharmacy market ‘very closely’ as it ‘evolves’, adding that ‘we are seeing the number of small independent pharmacies increase, while the number of pharmacies that are part of bigger businesses decrease’.

But Mr Aldous highlighted the need to retain access to community pharmacies within a 20-minute walk of patients amid ‘consolidation of the sector’, which he said was ‘not straight-forward with the current regulations’.

MP queries government’s claim on workforce increase

Several MPs raised concerns about the community pharmacy workforce, sharing news of vacancies from pharmacies within their own constituencies.

Mr O’Brien responded that the number of registered pharmacists in England had increased by 82% since 2010, from 28,984 to 52,780.

‘It is a huge increase, even compared with the huge increases elsewhere in the NHS,’ he said.

But Mr Aldous, who summed up the debate, responded that ‘a lot of that increase’ in the number of registered pharmacists ‘may have been in hospitals and medical practices’.

And he added: ‘The feedback that I get from community pharmacists is that they have challenges with recruitment and retention in their settings, and we need to address that.’

Mr O’Brien also pointed to initiatives outlined in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan to increase training places for pharmacists by nearly 50% by 2031/32, as well as fully funded training opportunities for pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.

‘Employers clearly have a key role in retaining staff and making jobs in community pharmacy attractive,’ he added.

The Community Pharmacy Workforce Development Group (CPWDG), representing the CCA, the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) and the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), recently said that legislative changes allowing pharmacy technicians to do more would incentivise community pharmacy employers to invest in training their workforce.

They also suggested that the most recent workforce data shared by NHSE represented an overestimation of the number of pharmacists working in community pharmacy.