Pharmacy employers have said that they cannot compete with retailers for staff, with some warning that they are losing team colleagues to international retailers like Amazon, Lidl and Aldi over pay.

Chief executives from several integrated care boards (ICBs), along with GP leaders, said that the wages and benefits offered by supermarkets, combined with the rate at which roles open up at new stores, has made it incredibly challenging to position the NHS and social care as a good option for work, our sister publication Healthcare Leader has revealed.

Community pharmacy contractor Waqas Ahmad also told The Pharmacist that he ‘doesn’t have a choice’ other than to match the 10% rise in national living wage from April, or he will risk losing his staff to other employers.

‘All that’s going to happen is I won't be able to retain my staff because they will be able to get the same amount for doing less elsewhere, without the responsibility that they have here’, he said.

‘They’re doing such a responsible job. Is it fair that they then fall to a minimum wage level? No, it's not. But is pharmacy getting any extra support to pay that? No we're not,’ he added.

The national living wage will rise to £10.42 per hour from April 2022 – a move which the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) warned would leave to layoffs without additional funding for the community pharmacy sector.

Felicity Cox, chief executive of Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes ICB, said that the system struggles to recruit ‘more junior roles when we’re competing with shops and warehouses’ that can offer discounts and attractive employment packages.

‘We have a huge Amazon warehouse, we have huge number of Aldis and Lidls opening what feels like almost weekly, so there are lots of other employment opportunities and we really have to think about being an attractive employer in a competitive market,’ she said.

Within the NHS, a band 2 role – which might include pharmacy assistants or pharmacy support workers – is paid £20,270 per year, or approximately £10.39 an hour under Agenda for Change.

Similarly paid roles within the community pharmacy sector include trainee dispensing assistants (at an annual average salary of £20,479, equivalent to £10.50 per hour) and pharmacy counter assistants (at an average annual salary of £19,823, or £10.16 per hour), according to salary comparison site GlassDoor.

According to the latest community pharmacy workforce survey, produced by Health Education England in 2021, such support roles make up a sizeable proportion of the community pharmacy workforce, with trainee dispensing assistants making up 7%, medicines counter assistants at 10%, and trainee medicines counter assistants at 3% of the full time equivalent (FTE) workforce.

The minimum wage in England is currently £4.81 an hour for under-18s, while employees aged over 23 must be paid the national living wage of £9.50 per hour.

By contrast, Lidl offers entry level shopfloor staff £11.95 an hour in London – and £10.90 outside the capital – with longer-term colleagues earning up to £13.00 an hour.

As of this month, Aldi has raised its hourly rate to £11 for store assistants. And reported figures suggest Amazon pays warehouse employees an average £14.79 per hour.

In the autumn statement in November, the government committed to publish a workforce plan in 2023 that would outline the number of different healthcare professionals needed for the next five, 10 and 15 years.

Will Quince, minister of state for health and secondary care, confirmed that the plan would include the pharmacy workforce, following a written question from Liberal Democrat MP and spokesperson for health and social care Daisy Cooper.

And earlier this month, community pharmacy leaders asked for confirmation that the plan will include the entirety of the pharmacy workforce across the healthcare service, including in community pharmacy.

Meanwhile NHS unions, including the Pharmacists’ Defence Association Union (PDAU), have called for NHS pay to be ‘urgently increased’ in order for the NHS to be able to recruit and retain enough staff.

Issues across health and social care

Currently there are as many as 165,000 vacant posts in the care sector in the UK, and 133,446 total FTE vacancies in the NHS in England.

The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) has now called for urgent, sustainable funding to help care services prevent highly skilled workers leaving for jobs with ‘less responsibilities’.

Cathie Williams, joint chief executive of the ADASS, said: ‘There are currently 165,000 vacancies in adult social services and we continue to hear reports from all around the country of care staff quitting for higher pay, and far less responsibility, in other sectors like retail and hospitality.

‘It is vital that adult social care is funded sustainably to meet need, rather than allowed to struggle and then subjected to short-term emergency cash injections when services are at crisis point.’

Stephen Eames, chief executive of Humber and North Yorkshire ICB, claimed an Amazon warehouse that had opened near Hull had offered incentives the system could not match.

‘Essentially Amazon, near Hull, had been offering £500 golden handshakes saying ‘Come and work for us’. They’re paying something like £15 an hour, whereas the minimum was only around £10 an hour.’

And West Yorkshire ICB told Healthcare Leader that ‘many’ of its staff are paid ‘close to or at’ the national living wage, which – alongside the added cost of inflation – ‘puts added pressure on the retention and recruitment of staff’.

Dr Peter Holden, treasurer at Derby and Derbyshire LMC, said his practice has given staff a 10% pay rise to keep receptionists and administrators from leaving the health service.

He said: ‘There is a limit to how much you can give away your own income. We’ve given our staff a 10% pay rise to avoid losing them to Aldi. Other businesses can put the extra costs onto their prices, but we can’t. We can’t just turn down the heating because people have got to get undressed to be examined.’

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said: ‘Retention within the NHS is a complex issue and there are many reasons why staff may choose to leave. The NHS Retention Programme seeks to understand why staff leave, resulting in interventions such as early career advice for graduates, mentoring schemes, advice on pensions and support for those going through menopause.

‘There are record numbers of staff working in NHS trusts and commissioning bodies in England, and almost 4,700 more doctors and over 10,500 more nurses in the NHS than last year.’

The Government has committed to publishing a workforce strategy this year.

It comes as staff across the NHS – including nurses and ambulance workers – continue to walk out over demands for an above-inflation pay rise, and as the NHS records a 9.7% vacancy rate.

The opposition has accused the Government of having ‘no strategy’ to settle the strikes.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer suggested the Conservative party would either ‘reach an agreement that they could have reached before the strike started’ or ‘slug it out’ over the year.

Lidl, Amazon and Aldi declined to comment.

A version of this article first appeared in our sister publications Healthcare Leader and Pulse