The Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA) has warned that corporations closing community pharmacies for commercial reasons could seriously harm patients.

It said it believes ‘it is only a matter of time before serious harm to patients’ health’ will come because mainly large chains of pharmacies are closing some of their branches for all of part of a day, instead of appointing pharmacist cover.

It urged England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to take action against these companies, which it said have an existing commitment to the NHS to provide a pharmacy service to local communities.

For example, it said community pharmacies could be put into ‘special measures’ by the NHS to protect patients from temporary pharmacy closures.

The PDA said: ‘Denying patients access to a community pharmacy can mean the denial of their ability to receive necessary medicines, advice, and services, some of which may be life critical.’

‘Increasing’ closures

Besides occasional closures of pharmacies due to a number of unforeseen circumstances, the PDA highlighted that commonplace closures had evolved over the last 20 months on an ‘indiscriminate scale’.

It said closures have increased since March 2020, when the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) and the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said pharmacies may need to close in exceptional circumstances in order take care of patients and their families during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The PDA believes that this gave some pharmacy businesses the opportunity to consider the financial benefit of operating some of their pharmacies without a pharmacist present. It said that some employers were also claiming that they could not find locums to cover their shifts.

According to the PDA, there has been rapid increase in the number of closures because no effective action or penalties have been taken against pharmacy owners.

Despite the claim by some owners that there is a national shortage of pharmacists, the PDA said that there are more registered pharmacists in Great Britain than ever.

The PDA previously claimed to have evidence that some operators – such as Tesco - had cancelled locum pharmacist shifts if they did not accept attempts to reduce pre-agreed rates but were blaming staff shortages.

However, contractors told The Pharmacist earlier this month that pharmacy closures have been due to a genuine lack of pharmacists - for example, due to Covid infections - rather than commercial reasons such as high locum rates.

Call for more regulation

The PDA has asked health and social care secretary Steve Barclay, Scottish health secretary Humza Yousaf and Northern Irish minister to empower their respective inspectorates to regulate the business behaviours of these companies.

These inspectorates are the Care Quality Commission, the Care Inspectorate and the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority respectively.

It said the health ministers should also financially sanction any businesses which breach standards.

The NHS should also have the option of putting failing pharmacies into special measures control and taking over their operation, it added.

A spokesperson for the Scottish government said: ‘Community pharmacy contractors are responsible for ensuring they provide the full range of NHS pharmaceutical services as agreed with their health board.

‘If they are unable to do so they should liaise with their health board primary care contracts team who will work with the contractor to minimise any disruption to patient care. Health boards can take a range of actions in response to any breach of terms by a pharmacy contractor.’

The Department of Health and Social Care and Northern Irish Department of Health has also been contacted for comment.

Guidelines were drawn up last week by the PSNC on how to handle short-term closure of pharmacies in an emergency.