Neil O'Brien MP has been appointed the parliamentary under secretary of state for Primary Care and Public Health, with responsibility for pharmacy and general practice among other remits.

The previous pharmacy minister Will Quince, who was appointed to the role in September, remains in the department with a different brief.

Mr O’Brien, who is Conservative MP for Harborough, has been part of the Department of Health and Social Care since September 2022, after a year as parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

He has also held roles advising the prime minister and the chancellor on levelling up, the Northern Powerhouse, economy and industrial strategy.

What will O’Brien mean for pharmacy services?

In March, Mr O’Brien said that preventative healthcare was ‘central to levelling up’ and that the Government needed to ‘be very imaginative and aggressive’, ‘think extremely radically’ and ‘really floor it’, adding that ‘otherwise the NHS will just be under humongous pressure for the rest of our lifetimes because of an ageing population’.

Many community pharmacies deliver preventative healthcare services like the NHS England advanced smoking cessation service, NHS blood pressure checks and weight loss clinics – but it remains to be seen how pharmacy might play a part in the ‘imaginative’ solutions to public healthcare he has called for.

Thorrun Govind, English Country Board Chair at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said that ‘pharmacists and pharmacy teams will play a key role in enhancing patient access to care’, as she urged Mr O’Brien to ‘support advancing the clinical role of pharmacists across the NHS.’

‘With warnings of potential cuts to public spending, it will be more important than ever to use the skills of all our health professions to reduce health inequalities, manage the growing cost of long-term conditions, and deliver best value from medicines,’ she said.

Welcoming Mr O’Brien to his role, the chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) Janet Morrison said that PSNC was keen to ‘explore further the very valuable wider role that community pharmacy could play within primary care, with the right funding settlement and support’.

Meanwhile the Pharmacists’ Defence Association, which represents pharmacists across the health sector, said that it hopes that Mr O’Brien will ‘take all the opportunities for pharmacists to play an even greater positive role in the NHS and for pharmacists to have a fulfilling and rewarding career as clinical health professionals.’

What will O’Brien mean for pharmacy workforce?

Amid growing workforce challenges, pharmacists were added to the Home Office’s shortage occupation list in 2021, which makes it easier for overseas pharmacists to apply for a skilled worker visa, in recognition of a ‘growing demand for pharmacists’ expertise’.

Mr O’Brien has said that ‘Britain should aim to be the grammar school of the world’ when it comes to immigration, ‘maximising upsides and lowering downsides by admitting a very small number of highly skilled people’.

He said that while ‘migration has many upsides’, including that ‘migrants bring ideas and skills, which are sometimes invaluable, particularly in the NHS’, he thought that ‘the economic benefits of migration are overstated’.

He said that while 'it’s quite right that we help with humanitarian crises’, ‘and we’ll need migration to fill critical planning to meet our own skills needs,’ he wanted to reduce migration overall.

What will O’Brien mean for pharmacy operational costs?

Energy bills are a pressing topic for community pharmacies, with pharmacy leaders calling for increased support for contractors.

Way back in 2012, Mr O’Brien said that he supported tougher action on privatised utilities, like water and energy bills, saying the Government should ‘get tough’ to ‘squeeze down costs’. Time will tell whether this translates into action this winter.

Responding to Mr O'Brien's appointment, Malcolm Harrison, CEO of the The Company Chemists' Association, welcomed him to the role, but stressed that the minister 'will find that the community pharmacy sector is more fragile than ever' amid 'untenable' funding and workforce pressures.

He continued: 'The Government must recognise that a real-terms cut in funding across the last eight years is leading to an increasing rate of permanent pharmacy closures. Our own research finds that 41% of permanent closures since 2015 have occurred in the 20% most deprived areas of England.

'The NHS must endeavour to put patients back in control. As such, a holistic review of primary care is urgently needed. This will ensure that resources are directed to where they deliver the most benefit to patients. Such a review must be underpinned by a fully funded and integrated workforce plan, as recommended by the Health and Social Care Committee.'