Almost three-quarters of pharmacies are experiencing a shortage of pharmacists, members of parliament were told at a roundtable event this week.

MPs from across the political spectrum attended the event at parliament on Tuesday hosted by cross-sector campaign group Save Our Pharmacies.

Community pharmacy leaders set out the challenges facing the sector, including early results from the Pressures Survey conducted by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) that found that 71% of community pharmacies are experiencing a shortage of pharmacists and 73% have reported longer dispensing times.

Over 6,200 pharmacies took part in the survey between 31 January and 26 February 2023.

Vacancy rates for community pharmacists doubled in five years, according to figures from Health Education England released in January 2022.

Pharmacists have previously told The Pharmacist that staff shortages – which they say are in part fuelled by the recruitment of pharmacists to PCNs – and high locum rates were putting them at risk of burnout and leading to temporary pharmacy closures.

At Tuesday’s event, sector leaders told MPs that a 30% real-terms cut in funding since 2015, combined with workforce shortages, an 80% rise in locum pharmacist costs in the past year alone, and increasing instances of dispensing medicines at a loss were leading to permanent pharmacy closures across large multiple chains.

However, this was being largely masked in independents by pharmacists working overtime, or even without taking pay, to keep their pharmacy open.

Community pharmacy leaders also set out the case for a nationally funded Pharmacy First scheme in England, which has been proposed by PSNC but not yet commissioned, despite supportive words from ministers.

Janet Morrison, PSNC chief executive, has previously said that funding for Pharmacy First is likely to be the closest thing to a core funding uplift that pharmacies could expect the Department of Health and Social Care to agree to, enabling them to provide walk-in healthcare advice and some treatments for minor ailments to patients.

At the event, sector leaders told MPs that a Pharmacy First scheme would relieve pressure on GPs and other parts of the NHS and is supported by the BMA as part of the solution to alleviate pressure elsewhere in the system.

The roundtable discussion concluded that the service should be nationally rather than locally commissioned, as this could result in regional differences, and would be slower than the ‘immediate impact’ on primary care recovery that a national scheme could have.

They also said that community pharmacists are poorly represented on local integrated care boards (ICBs), which would mean that pharmacies would not be a priority when commissioning new services.

In addition, they said that national and local agendas must be aligned as most community pharmacies rely on central NHS funding for more than 90% of their income.

Attendees at the roundtable discussion, where issues like pharmacist shortages, funding and Pharmacy First were discussed.

The event was chaired by MP Stephen Hammond and attended by 15 MPs including Pharmacy APPG chair Taiwo Owatemi.

Also in attendance were MPs Sally-Ann Hart, Peter Aldous, Anna Firth, Bob Seely, Derek Thomas, David Rutley, Lilian Greenwood, Tulip Siddiq, Hillary Benn, Sarah Olney, Christian Wakeford, Daisy Cooper (researcher) and Victoria Atkins (researcher).

The parliamentarians were briefed by community pharmacy leaders including Janet Morrison, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), Andrew Lane, independent pharmacy owner and chairman of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) and Ian Strachan, independent pharmacy owner and board member, of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp).

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, AIMp chief executive, who attended the event, said in a Tweet that MPs and the general public were supportive of community pharmacy, and asked: ‘so why are decision makers not listening?’

While PSNC chief executive, Janet Morrison said that the event was a ‘critical opportunity’ for ‘a very open and frank discussion about the current challenges facing community pharmacies’.

She added: ‘The situation is critical – pharmacies need a lifeline. If no help is forthcoming, government can expect to hear from more and more patients who are unable to access pharmacy services or even medicines.’

She said that there was ‘an abundance of political goodwill towards the community pharmacy sector’, as well as ‘very real concern about the future and the potential impact on the millions of people who visit us every week’.

She added: ‘I hope that all attending MPs will now encourage the government to take firm and decisive action to invest in our community pharmacies in order to safeguard safe and reliable access to medicines for patients and the public.’

MPs attending the event were encouraged to initiate direct contact with ministers and the Prime Minister, including leading a delegation of local pharmacists to meet with the secretary of state for health and social care Steve Barclay or Neil O’Brien, parliamentary under-secretary of state for primary care and public health.

They were also encouraged to raise the issues facing community pharmacy at parliamentary questions or seek an adjournment debate on the topic.

PSNC also suggested that MPs could participate in constituency visits to local pharmacies.