Latest community pharmacy workforce statistics reported by NHS England (NHSE) may have been overestimated due to a double-counting of locum pharmacists, a cross-sector group has suggested.

The Community Pharmacy Workforce Development Group (CPWDG), comprised of several pharmacy bodies, has called into question NHSE’s community pharmacy workforce survey for 2022.

But NHSE said that the results were still comparable to previous years.

In a report published last week, the CPWDG, which represents the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) and the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), said the total pharmacy headcount reported by NHSE ‘hides important details’.

Including locum pharmacists, the 2022 survey results suggested that there were 27,710 individual pharmacists working in community pharmacy in England, filling a total of 17,844 full time equivalent (FTE) roles.

This compares to an estimated 27,167 individual pharmacists filling a total 20,255 FTE roles in 2021.

Based on the annual survey completed by contractors about the staff that regularly work in their pharmacy, the figures also suggested that the size of the locum workforce increased from 7,516 in 2021 to 12,124 in 2022.

When the survey results were published last month, NHSE said that the total headcount of community pharmacists had remained 'almost constant' between 2021 and 2022, indicating that pharmacists are working fewer hours in a community setting.

But the CPWDG suggested that the figures may not be accurate, as ‘clearly locums can, and many will, work in multiple pharmacies within the same week’.

And it added that this likely meant that the total headcount of community pharmacists reported was an ‘overestimation’.

Responding to the CPWDG’s concerns today, NHSE told The Pharmacist that ‘there might be some possible double-counting of the locum workforce’.

The locum headcount identifies pharmacists who are either part of the pharmacy’s workforce model or who fill a session due to the employed pharmacist being unavailable, as reported by each pharmacy contractor.

‘The survey is not a census and cannot report on workforce information for individuals. It is a reported overview of the workforce from community pharmacy contractors,’ NHSE added.

And it said that the headcount figures were ‘collected and calculated consistently’ with the same principles in each annual survey, ‘therefore when the data points are compared it’s a like for like comparison’ between each year

In 2022, 95% of pharmacy contractors completed the survey when it became mandatory, nearly double the 47% response rate in 2021.

The CPWDG also raised concerns about the reduction in the FTE pharmacist workforce that has left each pharmacy with an average of eight fewer hours of pharmacist cover per week.

It said that even with an increase in locum shifts, the accessibility of pharmacists per pharmacy decreased by 11% between 2021 and 2022.

Community pharmacy groups have previously criticised the Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme (ARRS) scheme for its recruitment of pharmacists previously working in community pharmacy, with the CCA warning that ARRS was ‘stealing’ the community pharmacy workforce.

Now, the CPWDG has called for measures to counteract the impact of ARRS funding being used to offer pharmacists roles in general practice.

It said that rather than moving pharmacists to different settings, funding should be instead directed to community pharmacies to deliver funded ‘packages of care’ on behalf of primary care networks (PCNs).

And it called for ‘large scale ambitious commissioning’ of clinical services in community pharmacy, which it said would incentivise businesses to invest in upskilling its workforce.

This comes as the NHS workforce survey suggested that the proportion of pharmacist independent prescribers using their qualification in a community setting decreased from 25% in 2021 to just 17% in 2022.

In particular, it said that setting out a clear role for pharmacist prescribers in community pharmacy would help to achieve its target of 95% of community pharmacists holding a prescribing qualification by 2030.

And Marc Donovan, the CPWDG chair called for ‘immediate steps’ to be taken to harness skills mix in pharmacy teams, free up pharmacists’ time to deliver patient-facing care and to reach the 95% prescribing target.

He said: ‘Community pharmacy must have the flexibility to deliver greater clinical care. At present, the sector is severely restricted. Funding cuts have resulted in pharmacy businesses having to make efficiency savings, resulting in fewer staff, which is increasing workforce pressures.’

And without additional funding and the recommended changes set out by the group, the sector’s workforce crisis ‘will deepen further’, Mr Donovan, who is also director of healthcare development and public affairs at Boots UK added.

‘There is a risk that the true potential of the sector will never truly be realised, potentially depriving patients of the opportunity to access greater care from their local pharmacy,’ Mr Donovan warned.