An ITV documentary has raised questions around whether pharmacies in England will have the capacity to deliver Pharmacy First, with 48% of pharmacy workers surveyed telling the programme they do not ‘feel confident’ that they will be able to provide new services.

ITV’s Tonight programme on Thursday evening placed a stark lens on the ongoing challenges faced by community pharmacies across the country, including medicines shortages, pharmacy closures and funding issues.

As part of the programme, fresh concerns were raised around how pharmacies will be able to provide the new common conditions service, set to launch at the end of January.

To inform the programme, ITV surveyed 980 pharmacy workers across the country and filmed throughout their busiest periods between December and early January.

Survey findings saw almost half (48%) of pharmacy workers report that they do not feel confident they can provide the new services that are expected when the Pharmacy First scheme is rolled out, according to ITV.

One pharmacist featured in the programme – Vikki from Monkbar Pharmacy in York – said she was ‘not confident that we can manage the additional capacity that we need to be able to provide the service to everyone that needs it’.

‘We know people want to receive services in pharmacies, but what we need is a recognition that actually 10 years of progressive underfunding is not going to allow us the flexibility to be able to flex and provide those services,’ she added.

In comparison, the programme drew attention to Scotland’s Pharmacy first scheme which has seen pharmacists treating minor ailments for the last four years.

Adam Osprey, policy and development pharmacist at Community Pharmacy Scotland, suggested there had been ‘many years of successful and fruitful negotiations that have provided us with a safe and stable platform for our pharmacy owners to be able to invest in their businesses and set the scene properly before having these clinical services roll out’.

‘We've been lucky so far,’ he told the programme.

Meanwhile, Scott, from M&D Green Pharmacy in Glasgow, told ITV that ‘patients absolutely love the service’.

‘They get a diagnosis and a treatment and advice without having to perhaps wait for a long time to get GP appointment or a number of hours for an out of hours appointment,’ he added.

When the Pharmacy First scheme was first announced in England, the government, NHS England (NHSE) and Community Pharmacy England said they agreed it would launch on 31 January 2024, subject to the ‘appropriate digital systems being in place’ to support the service.

It was backed by a £645m investment – which is also to be used for expanded contraception and hypertension services – but concerns have been raised over whether this will be enough to support the scheme.

There have also been some concerns over whether IT solutions would be in place ready for the rollout.

Meanwhile, in December, NHSE said that while at that time there was ‘nothing to suggest’ that delivery of Pharmacy First was not on track, contingency plans were being worked up in the background.

Pharmacists and leaders from across the sector, including from the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) and Community Pharmacy England (CPE) were interviewed for the ITV documentary.

Speaking to The Pharmacist before the programme was aired, chief executive of AIMp Dr Leyla Hannbeck, said she hoped the documentary would bring to light the challenges faced by the sector and how many local pharmacies were ‘going through hell at the moment’.

It was highlighted during the short film that an estimated average of eight pharmacies a week are closing their doors, while ITV survey findings suggested 80% of pharmacy owners had reduced their services.

Meanwhile, almost nine in 10 (89%) contractors surveyed for the programme said they had experienced months of dispensing at a loss, while 96% said they were concerned that their pharmacies were not financially viable.

In response to the programme, CPE chief executive Janet Morrison, said: ‘It is critical that we keep highlighting the crisis facing pharmacies, and the impact it has on patients and local communities, so we were pleased to be able to do so in a primetime TV programme.’

She recognised that the documentary highlighted ‘some pharmacists who said they did not feel confident in the run up to the launch of the Pharmacy First service’ and pointed to CPE’s ongoing training programme.

‘Previous polling and preliminary results from our January polling suggest that the majority of the sector feel positive about the service,’ added Ms Morrison.

Pharmacy First ‘is a huge step forwards for community pharmacy, accompanied by the most significant investment in many years’, she said.

‘However, nearly a decade of funding cuts are severely impacting the sector and we are also continuing to fight for the further investment and help that community pharmacies desperately need,’ she added.

Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the CCA, said he was grateful the programme placed ‘a spotlight on the very difficult challenges facing all pharmacy businesses in England’.

However, he added: ‘Despite these challenges, Pharmacy First offers an opportunity to demonstrate the further value that pharmacies can provide in increasing patient access and relieving pressure on GPs.

‘With sufficient investment and support, community pharmacy can resolve more of the problems facing the NHS today.’

A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘Community pharmacies play a vital role and are backed with £2.6 billion in government funding a year.

‘We are providing thousands more training places for pharmacists and announced up to £645 million in additional funding to support Pharmacy First which has been widely welcomed by clinicians, patients, and pharmacists.’