The new NHS England campaign directing patients to community pharmacies is ‘deeply concerning’, ‘irresponsible, ‘extremely unhelpful’ and ‘irritating’, PSNC chief executive Janet Morrison has said, given that it comes amid heightened pressures on community pharmacies.

The ‘movie-inspired’ series of adverts tell stories of patients struggling with minor illnesses and highlight how community pharmacies can provide advice, over-the-counter medicines and signposting to other health professionals.

But while Ms Morrison said that community pharmacies were the ‘obvious first port of call for healthcare advice’, she said that the service must be adequately funded.

She said: ‘It is always deeply concerning to see campaigns directing people to pharmacies without any regard for the pressures they are under: it is irresponsible and extremely unhelpful.

'This NHS campaign is particularly irritating just weeks after we rejected a series of proposals from NHS England and DHSC on relief measures to ease pressure on pharmacies as being totally inadequate. NHS England Board Members have noted the pressure on pharmacies – so why are their teams so often acting to make these pressures worse?

'We need to see a radical change in how NHS England treats pharmacies and we’re continuing to press for that via our influencing and campaigning work.’

She also said: ‘Community pharmacies are the obvious first port of call for healthcare advice and this is why a national, fully funded Pharmacy First service makes so much sense. But the service must be fully funded: community pharmacies are at breaking point and cannot continue to operate without a significant injection of extra funds. We are making this point to Government and the NHS on a daily basis.’

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple pharmacies (AIMp) said in a Tweet that it was 'very disappointing that NHS England have launched #HelpUsHelpYou campaign this week, asking the public to visit local pharmacies for minor ailments, without government providing the already cash-starved overworked pharmacies with sufficient notice of this or any financial support'. 

Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists' Association (CCA), said that 'there is now a very real risk that when patients visit a pharmacy, they will be faced by exhausted teams and longer than expected waiting times', blaming a 30% cut in real term funding, the NHS recruitment of pharmacists through the ARRS scheme and a 'continuing increase in the number of medicines prescribed'.

He added: 'The NHS policy of asking patients to visit their local pharmacy does not address the problem of delays to access in primary care, it simply moves it from one pressurized location to another.  The NHS must address the chronic underfunding of primary care, and of pharmacy in particular, if patients are to be able to access the care they need and should rightly expect.'

Andrew Lane, chair of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) said: 'The NHS wants pharmacies to do more clinical services – which is something that patients and we want too. But this can’t be done running on empty.'

He added that Pharmacy First-style schemes have been successful in Cornwall, Scotland and Wales 'and it’s fair to the public that there should be something similar in England'.

'But this can only work if there is substantial new investment by government and NHS England. Community pharmacies have been asked to do more and more work for less and less payment, and our capacity no longer matches the demands made on us,' he added.

The new ad campaign is thought to form part of a multi-million pound advertising contract with M&C Saatchi, details of which first emerged at the end of last year. That campaign was also intended to promote remote GP consultations.

The NHSE campaign features adverts titled ‘Earache strikes back’, ‘Sore throat and the lost voice’, and ‘Night of the itchy eye’, and highlights how community pharmacies can help with minor health concerns.

It is also supported by community pharmacist and YouTube star Abraham Khadadi, who said: ‘I would encourage everyone to make use of their local pharmacy. They are such a convenient way to obtain health advice on minor illnesses and you can usually just walk-in and speak to a pharmacist straight away – you don’t even need an appointment.’

Chief pharmaceutical officer, David Webb, said: ‘Community pharmacies are right in the heart of local communities, and with pharmacists fully trained clinical professionals, they are the perfect place for anybody suffering from a minor illness to get expert advice.’

He highlighted the convenience of ‘turn up on the day consultations’ provided through community pharmacies, adding: ‘popping into your local pharmacy is a great way to nip an issue in the bud before it potentially worsens.’

The campaign comes as new NHS polling found that just one in five people aged 18-40 in the UK would visit their local pharmacy first for expert advice with a minor illness.

Dr Dave Triska, a GP in Surrey, said that this suggested that people did not seem to want to use pharmacies for minor illnesses.

‘It sounds like a very expensive way to tell people what they already know and are already declining to do,’ he said.

‘Pharmacists are freely available now, but they should be compensated for their assets, and [GPs] shouldn’t be shifting the unfunded workload to them – and that is based on accepting that people would do this,’ he added.

In January, Health Secretary Steve Barclay told the House of Commons that there were many things that community pharmacists could support with in order to help ease pressure on general practice.

In addition to the Pharmacy Contraception Service and minor ailments referrals from primary care agreed in the Community Pharmacy Contractual Framework (CPCF), Mr Barclay said that he wanted community pharmacists to do ‘even more’, ‘indeed as they do in Scotland’.

At the time, pharmacy leaders welcomed Mr Barclay’s vision for the sector to do more but responded with calls for Mr Barclay to fund a national Pharmacy First service in England, as exists in Scotland.

The new Pharmacy Contraception Service was due to begin on 13 January but has been delayed to a later date in early 2023 to allow community pharmacy IT system suppliers to develop the necessary IT support.

Sections of this article first appeared on our sister publication, Pulse.