‘There is no policy’ to force pharmacies to close, the chief pharmaceutical officer for England David Webb said last night at a conference hosted by the National Pharmacy Association (NPA).

He was responding to a question from an NPA member at the conference, who said that there had been a deliberate policy by NHS England to force 3,000 pharmacies to close ‘using the blunt tool of indiscriminate funding cuts’ and said that he saw no evidence of change in this policy.

Mr Webb said that community pharmacies were essential to giving patients personalised, accessible care and played a key role in prevention.

He added: ‘All of those things say to me that pharmacies need to be placed where the need is, and that would, therefore not sustain a policy where you were trying to sort of randomly close.’

Mr Webb stressed that ‘closures are not a good thing’ and that ‘we recognise the pressure on the system’ around the community pharmacy five-year contract.

Also speaking at the event, Professor David Taylor of University College London’s School of Pharmacy warned that ‘there will be an existential threat to several thousand pharmacies’ if inflation continues at 10%.

His recent independent report, published last month and co-authored with Dr Panos Kanavos of the London School of Economics and Political Science, found inflationary pressures combined with community pharmacy budget cuts since 2015 ‘threatens pharmacy closures on a disastrous scale’.

The proportion of English NHS funding allocated to community pharmacy would have fallen by over a third by 2024, it found, warning that ‘several thousand’ English community pharmacies would be likely to close over the next few years, posing a risk to patient care and public health.

Speaking at the NPA Conference last night, Dr Taylor also pointed out that pharmacy closures could have a particular impact on deprived communities.

Recent analysis by the Company Chemists’ Association found that over 40% of pharmacy closures since 2015 have been in the 20% most deprived areas in England.

Dr Taylor continued: ‘I think we should be focusing on the long term about what we're trying to build with the NHS, about how NHS primary care develops.’

‘Is it something we want anonymised, technically efficient, but in human terms remote? [Or is that] no longer what people are looking for when they've got severe problems?

‘Or do we try to build a fundamentally more humane system and one which makes better skill use of the skills of not only doctors, not only nurses, not only pharmacists, but everybody else involved that openness, to innovate?’

He added: ‘Things which have grown up in the past are valuable, and we should protect the valuable aspects of them. But if we get locked into defending the past, rather than adapting for the future, then what does evolution tell us? It tells us we’ll become extinct.’

This comes after £208m funding cuts in NHS England between 2015 and 2018, which reduced the community pharmacy budget from £2.8bn to £2.592bn.

However, NHS England has said the 2015 funding cuts were intended to reduce the number of ‘cluster’ pharmacies supported by the NHS and bring the sector into a time of greater efficiency.

Then chief pharmaceutical officer Dr Keith Ridge told The Pharmacist in 2017: ‘With 40% of community pharmacies in clusters of three or more within 10 minutes of each other, and all receiving NHS funding, the Government has decided to make this system more efficient.

He added: ‘I think we can’t also get away from the fact that community pharmacies of any nature – independent or otherwise – are businesses and I guess we would expect them now to make those efficiencies and to deliver the services which the public expect.

‘After all, we are all taxpayers and in order to make the most of what is not an infinite pot of money from the NHS, we need to ensure that money is used effectively and efficiently.’

The 2016 cuts were followed by the announcement of the Pharmacy Integration Fund in 2017, which Dr Ridge said would offer ‘a rather different future for community pharmacy’ focused on delivering clinical services.

Recent figures published by the NHS Business Services Authority show that the number of pharmacy contractors now stands at the lowest it has been since 2015/16.