Pharmacists have welcomed the launch of a campaign calling for fair NHS funding for pharmacies in England.

The Save Our Pharmacies campaign was announced on 18 January by four leading national pharmacy bodies and will focus on highlighting both the pressures that pharmacies are under and the huge untapped potential of the sector.

A joint statement from Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, National Pharmacy Association, Company Chemists’ Association, and the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies said the group will ‘develop shared resources for effective parliamentary lobbying and mobilising public opinion in the face of chronic underfunding that threatens further pharmacy closures’.

Pharmacist Ian Strachan, who owns Strachan’s Chemists in the north west of England, told The Pharmacist that pharmacies have a ‘cash-flow’ issue and are ‘building debts’.

He said: ‘The only way they can relieve that is if more money goes into the system to give headroom and do all the wonderful things the government wants them to do.’

The pharmacy owner commented: 'This is a public sector industry, and 96 per cent of what we do in pharmacy is NHS which is on behalf of the government. We were the only industry open in Covid and there’s good reason for that. You can’t close pharmacies. Food, water and medicine are the most important and if you don’t have those there’s a crisis.

‘So, pharmacies keep going because they care. They know what they do every day is important. They are the fabric of people’s lives.’

Mr Strachan said he ‘fully supports’ the campaign, adding: ‘It’s a sad situation. Compared with the money that’s gone to other parts of the health service, pharmacies have just a fraction, yet pharmacies could be the answer to many problems: national vaccination programmes; screening to detect cancer; wellbeing and healthy living so people don’t become ill in the first place; managing long-term conditions. We could play a massive role in that.’

He believes pharmacies are perfectly positioned in the heart of the community to improve patient outcomes and wellbeing, adding: ‘You can go and see a pharmacist as many times as you want in a week and you’ll never be turned away. They will be there to listen and that is what makes them special.’

Paddy Gompels, who runs the group of four D&M Gompels pharmacies in the south-west of England, said he supports the campaign and hopes it will lead to an overhaul of the current funding model.

He said: ‘We have serious difficulties getting locum pharmacists and cover because rates have gone up exceptionally high. The rates are unaffordable, I have seen requests for £80 an hour.

‘We also have major issues with drug supply and that often comes from reimbursement. Pre-Christmas we bought antibiotics at a loss.’

Mr Gompels said the current reimbursement system for drugs means pharmacists are ‘gambling’ when ordering medication, not knowing if the NHS will reimburse the full amount.

He said: ‘It’s a gamble because we don’t know whether we will get paid. Our teams are trying to source these items at a reasonable price and that takes time which is frustrating for our customers.

‘The reimbursement for drugs needs to be looked at because it’s a retrospective system. I don’t know any other industry where you buy hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of stock, and you don’t know what you will be reimbursed.’

The pharmacy owner, whose group of pharmacies have operated for 55 years, said pharmacies are expected to do ‘more work for less money’ as many services have moved over to pharmacies, such as blood pressure checks. He said that whilst this is ‘fantastic’ for patients, pharmacies are not being given funding to support the additional work.

‘I don’t disagree with the services we are taking on, they are making a huge difference to the community,’ he said, adding: ‘But they need to be funded. And they need to be funded so we have the time. For many pharmacies, they can’t offer these extra services and get the day-to-day job done. That comes at a cost to patients because they don’t get those services.

‘If we are taking on an additional workload that saves GP appointments it needs to be funded correctly.’

Asked what he thinks will happen if additional funding is not allocated to pharmacies, he said: ‘Pharmacies will close, and they will continue to close, and it will come at a cost to the patients. I wholeheartedly support the services such as blood pressure checks, but if it’s not funded it can’t happen. We serve a vital role in the community to support patients and relieve pressure from other services, but we are struggling. We are losing a large amount of money and it’s not sustainable.’

Also welcoming the news of the campaign was pharmacist Adela Ajazi, a locum at Caxon Pharmacy in Bromley, who said: ‘We have been hoping for difference for so long. A lot of pharmacists have voiced their opinion and we feel that we’re not heard, so hopefully this campaign will make us heard.’

Ms Ajazi said problems have been building over the last five to seven years for pharmacies, leading to an overload of work and many people leaving the industry because of the pressures.

She said: ‘I think another issue is the fact that a lot of the general public don’t understand the pressure we are under. They reveal their frustrations when prescriptions aren’t ready to order.’

The pharmacist has worked in the industry for 10 years and she believes pharmacies will end up closing if nothing changes.

She told The Pharmacist: ‘Pharmacy owners aren’t willing to pay for extra staff because they aren’t getting the funding. The hourly rate it quite low so a lot of over counter assistants aren’t willing to accept that rate because of the pressure that comes with it. People can be physically abusive. So, they weigh up the options of whether it’s worth it and a lot have left because of that reason.

‘There have been days where I have had to work by myself answering the phone and checking prescriptions and having to do five things at the same time while serving and advising patients.

‘If something doesn’t change then pharmacies will end up closing. I think if more pressure builds up and builds up that will eventually lead to a big mistake happening that could cost someone’s life.’

Another locum pharmacist, Khalid Waseem, at Safedale Pharmacy in Haringey, London, said staffing problems is the main issue facing pharmacies.

He said: ‘It’s difficult to recruit and keep good staff to maintain a sufficient level of service. People are expected to do more work for less money.’

Mr Waseem, who has been a pharmacist for 28 years, was hopeful that the campaign will make a difference.

He believes that without urgent action, many pharmacies will be forced to close, adding: ‘Pharmacies that are small, neighbourhood pharmacies with low volume dispensing, I can’t see how they will make ends meet. A lot of smaller pharmacies will have to close, and it will be the bigger chains that stay open.’

The Save Our Pharmacies Campaign is expected to run regular events, with the first likely to be held in March.

PSNC’s chief executive, Janet Morrison, described the campaign as ‘a clear warning shot to Government about the path they are currently on’.