Almost one in five full-time equivalent (FTE) pharmacist roles in the south west of England were empty as of July 2020, a survey has revealed.

The Community Pharmacy Workforce Development Group (CPWDG)’s survey found a 9% FTE pharmacist vacancy rate across England, with this rising significantly to 15% in the South East and 18% in the South West.

It also found that pharmacist vacancies were open ‘for around 26 weeks’ on average.

The survey received responses from 40% of the country’s community pharmacies and the findings were included in a report examining the community pharmacy workforce.

The CPWDG – which is made up of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA), and the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) – also found that vacancies for pharmacy technician roles were unfilled for ‘significant lengths of time’.

‘Where respondents reported vacancies, on average they were open for around 6 months,’ the report said.

It added that retention among some staff groups, such as trainee dispensing assistants and trainee health care assistants, is also an issue, with the turnover for these particular groups reaching over 25% per annum.

‘This can have significant cost and resource implications for businesses who invest in support and training courses which are left unfinished,’ the report said.

The cross-sector group made a number of recommendations to encourage retention by increasing the capability required of future pharmacy teams.

This included primary care networks being granted the flexibility to commission community pharmacies to deliver local services, for pharmacy technicians to be added to PGD as healthcare professionals who can vaccinate patients, and a ‘life-long’ structured programme of learning for pharmacy staff.

Professional bodies, higher education institutes, policy makers, and statutory education bodies should also join employers to undertake ‘a programme of collaborative work to ensure community pharmacy is seen as an attractive career choice for future pharmacists’, the group said.

Marc Donovan, chair of the Community Pharmacy Workforce Development Group, said: ‘It will take a collaborative approach, between all stakeholders, to realise and maximise the potential of the community pharmacy workforce. We would like to see a holistic programme of continuous education and development which supports the development of the existing workforce.

‘This must be aligned with opportunities for colleagues to use their new skills within the community. As employers we know our workforce is our greatest asset.’

He added: ‘Alongside the work which needs to be undertaken by NHS England and others to allow the sector to reach its potential, we must recognise our own role in ensuring community pharmacy is considered by current and future colleagues as a desirable career.’

Commenting on the findings, Claire Anderson, chair of the English Pharmacy Board, said: ‘Covid-19 has placed added strain on pharmacy teams that were already at risk of burnout. They’ve really shone this past year to put patients first. It’s vital they get appropriate support and are fairly rewarded for the work they do.’

She added: ‘If the Government wants to support the NHS recovery, it must empower pharmacists working in the community to use the full extent of their expertise. This will need more clinical services developed as part of the community pharmacy contract, and funding to boost the numbers of pharmacist independent prescribers.’