The chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA), Malcolm Harrison, has called for an immediate stop to the recruitment of pharmacists into general practice.

This follows the government’s announcement yesterday that it had surpassed its target to recruit 26,000 more staff into primary care nearly one year ahead of schedule.

Leaders across the pharmacy sector have responded with mixed reactions, with some highlighting the benefit of practice pharmacists to patients while others warned of the detrimental impact that the recruitment of this role is having on community pharmacy.

Mr Harrison said that while the recruitment of 29,103 additional primary care staff – including 6,331 full-time equivalent pharmacists – was ‘undoubtedly good news for GPs’, it was ‘creating significant problems for the rest of the NHS’.

He said that despite the sector’s continued warnings of a workforce crisis in pharmacy, ‘this short-sighted recruitment drive continues at pace’.

‘It’s clear that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing,’ he added.

He said that now that the government had met its primary care staffing target, it should ‘immediately halt further recruitment of pharmacists into GP surgeries’ if it wanted pharmacies to take on more workload to help recover access to primary care.

‘With their target now met, the corrosive impact of the ARRS scheme on community pharmacy must be stopped,’ he said.

A recent report from the Company Chemists’ Association suggested that the recruitment of pharmacists into primary care was ‘stealing’ the workforce from other pharmacy sectors and exacerbating the workload and staffing crises within community pharmacy.

And last week Mr Harrison called for the upcoming NHS workforce plan to include a comprehensive review of the pharmacist workforce across all sectors and to examine how to ‘coordinate the best use of the professionals we have across the systems’.

Meeting the primary care staffing target was hailed as a success by government and NHS England leaders, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saying that it was ‘fantastic news’ that the government had delivered on its promise to expand primary care teams almost one year earlier than planned.

‘Milestone not something to be celebrated’

But National Pharmacy Association (NPA) chair, Nick Kaye, said that the NPA was not celebrating the milestone ‘because of the drain ARRS has created on the community pharmacy workforce’.

‘The scheme has the unintended consequence of stripping away patient-facing professionals from community pharmacies, making pharmaceutical care less rather than more accessible overall,’ he said. He added that the recent Hewitt review into the effectiveness of integrated care systems ‘called this out as an example of silo thinking’.

Mr Kaye also said that workforce plans should take into account the whole of primary care, including community pharmacy.

‘With that approach, investment in staff across the system could be much more productive and connect all the available resources,’ he said.

And he suggested that the ‘integration mindset’ could be taken a step further. ‘Why can’t ARRS roles be considered for the community pharmacy setting too?’ he said.

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp) said that ARRS had been ‘a big contributing factor to one of the most damaging workforce crises in community pharmacy’.

She added that funding pharmacist roles in general practice and primary care networks (PCNs) ‘did not allow community pharmacies to plan ahead and denied pharmacies a level playing field at the time when our sector was asked by the government to do more services for the NHS’.

She also said that the terminology of ‘clinical pharmacists’ used to refer to pharmacists working in PCNs and general practice was ‘divisive’ as it gave ‘the false impression that community pharmacists were not “clinical”’.

‘The scheme left a lasting negative mark on community pharmacy workforce and on the accessibility to care for patients. The government officials and those who came up with this plan have nothing to be proud of,’ she added.

The chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) Janet Morrison said that while PSNC understood and wanted to help relieve the pressure on general practice colleagues, it had been warning Government and the NHS of the 'damaging consequences that ARRS has had on the sector' for some time.

'The policy is exacerbating pharmacy workforce problems – increasing vacancy rates and causing spiralling locum costs. However, the recent Hewitt report was clear that action should be taken to carefully consider the best use of the limited pharmacist workforce going forwards, and we hope the Government will propose solutions in their upcoming long-term NHS workforce plan,' Ms Morrison said.

ARRS to be reviewed

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that it was working with NHS England to continue to monitor the impact of recruitment of clinical pharmacists to general practice and NHS England was committed to reviewing the ARRS ahead of 2024/2025.

And it highlighted the £645m of additional funding for community pharmacies announced in last week’s primary care recovery plan, which it said would help community pharmacies increase staff capacity and offer more services.

Practice pharmacists ‘a benefit to patients’

Meanwhile, Paul Day, director of the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA) said that pharmacists could add value across the health system, and it that it was a benefit to patients to have pharmacists working in general practice.

He also said that general practice and PCN roles for pharmacists gave professionals more career options, ‘thereby making the role more attractive to potential new recruits’.

But he added: ‘There needs to be sustainable funding and arrangements so that patients continue to have access to pharmacists as part of the primary care multidisciplinary team.’

Thorrun Govind, England chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) said that pharmacists recruited through ARRS ‘have made a huge difference for patients’ and that she welcomed the commitment in the recent NHS primary care recovery plan to continue funding them.

She added: ‘We know there are challenges when some pharmacists in ARRS roles are not adequately supported, and I look forward to NHS England addressing this variation in how to make best use of these roles.’

And she called for a ‘strategic approach to workforce planning across the system’.

‘Pharmacy teams across the health service are under enormous pressure and the government must urgently publish the long-awaited NHS Long-Term Workforce Plan to help recruit and retain the staff we need,’ she added.