The number of community pharmacies in England is down by 1,008 compared with 2015, according to a new report from the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA).

The CCA also found that the rate of net closures is increasing, with an average loss of eight pharmacies per week.

More than a third (37.5%) of the net closures (up to 10 September 2023) were in England’s 20% most deprived areas.

The release of the CCA research follows a report last month by the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) showing that active dispensing contractors in England are at their lowest level since 2015/16.

Meanwhile, market analysis by property adviser Christie & Co found that corporate operators suffered a net loss of 200 pharmacy stores between 2022 and 2023, while medium-sized pharmacy groups saw a decline of 68.

The CCA report – called The impact of pharmacy closures on health inequalities: one year on – also highlighted a ‘funding blackhole’ of more than £67,000 per pharmacy in England, and a ‘workforce crisis’ exacerbated by GP recruitment of pharmacists via the Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme (ARRS).

More than 5,200 full-time equivalent pharmacists are now working in primary care networks and the CCA estimates that ARRS has led to the exodus of almost 4,000 community pharmacists.

Earlier this week, pharmacy leaders told the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee that the introduction of ARRS had resulted in increased staff shortages and ‘more exhaustion’ for community pharmacy teams.

According to the CCA, workload demand across the community pharmacy network increased by 1.7 million hours between 2017/18 and 2022/23.

Malcolm Harrison, CCA chief executive, said: ‘A toxic mix of funding, workforce and workload pressure are restricting pharmacies from delivering what the government wants them to deliver.

‘Pharmacies are delivering many more services and dispensing more and more medicines for an ever-shrinking pot of money. This is simply unsustainable.’

Discussions are continuing between the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and sector stakeholders regarding additional investment of up to £645m into pharmacy. However, the CCA said the money is not yet flowing into the sector.

The report calls for the government to revisit pharmacies’ core funding to reverse the trend of closures.

It also urges action to rectify the pharmacy workforce crisis through holistic workforce planning and halting the recruitment of pharmacists into primary care networks.

‘Without immediate action to protect the community pharmacy network, patients in deprived neighbourhoods risk being left high and dry,’ said Mr Harrison.

‘The government must work with us to reshape what community pharmacies do and reduce our workload so patients can continue to access the face-to-face care they need from pharmacies.’

Responding to the report, a DHSC spokesperson said: ‘Community pharmacies play a vital role in our healthcare system, backed by £2.6bn a year, with 80% of people living within a 20-minute walk of a pharmacy and twice as many pharmacies in deprived areas.

‘As part of our Long-Term Workforce Plan we’re providing thousands more training places for pharmacists, and we have announced £645m in additional funding to support community pharmacies to supply prescription-only medicines for seven common conditions, without the patient needing to see a GP.’

Preet Kaur Gill, Labour’s shadow minister for primary care and public health, described the level of community pharmacy closures as ‘shocking’.

She promised that a Labour government would ‘expand the role of community pharmacy’ and ‘cut unnecessary red tape to ensure pharmacists can focus on their expertise in prescribing and medicines management’.