Community pharmacies in England are struggling to fill job roles more so than they were five years ago, new figures from Health Education England (HEE) have revealed. 

The ‘Community Pharmacy Workforce Survey’, published last week (20 January) found vacancy rates had increased across all pharmacy roles in 2017, with some positions showing vacancy rates of up 20%.  

The survey, which was completed by 47% of community pharmacies in England between May and June 2021, found the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) vacancies for community pharmacists in England had doubled to 8% since the last workforce survey in 2017 (up from 4% in 2017). 

Vacancy rates were higher for other pharmacy roles, with 20% FTE vacancy rates for accuracy checkers, over double what it was in 2017 (6%). The rate for trainee medicine counter assistants was similarly high, at 18% (up from 8% in 2017). 

The lowest FTE vacancy rates were for trained dispensing assistants and pharmacy technicians (both 7%).  

There were ‘regional discrepancies’ in both vacancy rates and reported difficulty in hiring pharmacists. According to the survey respondents, East of England had the highest proportion of vacancies at 11%, and lowest in North East & Yorkshire and the South East (both 7%). 

However, the report revealed that recruitment was found to be especially challenging in the South West of England where 81% of respondents reported difficulties in filling pharmacist vacancies. 

Pharmacies struggling to recruit  

In March 2021, the Home Office added pharmacists, among several other health and social care roles, had been added to the shortage occupation list (SOL)

This came after a review, published by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), recommended that pharmacists be added to the list amid shortage concerns. 

Its review of the shortage occupation list found there was a ‘national shortage in this occupation due to a decline in the number of pharmacy graduates and increasing demand for their services,’ which has led to ‘recruitment difficulties’. 

Hard to maintain services  

Gareth Jones, the National Pharmacy Association’s director of corporate affairs warned against reading ‘too much into the data’ in light of the ‘relatively low response rate’. 

However, he did say the results were ‘consistent with what we hear all the time from pharmacies struggling to recruit and retain pharmacists and pharmacy technicians and maintain services’. 

He added: ‘It’s a complicated picture, with the pressures of the pandemic overlaying the dire funding situation and a continued drain of pharmacy staff into GP surgeries. 

‘One practical step would be a requirement that local impact assessments are carried out prior to any recruitment into PCNs/CCG sites under the Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme (ARRS). 

‘PCNs and CCGs should, in association with local representative bodies, consider the impact of the creation of new roles on all health care providers in the area and on their ability to deliver their objectives on behalf of the NHS,’ he said. 

In December, NPA chief executive Mark Lyonette wrote a letter to then-director of primary care at NHS England and Improvement, Ed Waller, outlining concerns around the significant challenges facing pharmacy services as a result of a shortage of pharmacists and other members of staff. 

In the letter, Mr Lyonette said that Local NHS teams must consider the impact that the continued recruitment of pharmacists and technicians into primary care networks (PCNs) might have on the delivery of community pharmacy services., 

Malcolm Harrison, CEO of the Company Chemists' Association welcomed HEE’s efforts to ‘quantify the extent of the issues around recruitment and headcount within the community pharmacy workforce’. 

‘Robust and up to date data collection is our best tool to inform effective workforce planning for the future and we at the CCA will continue to advocate for evidence-led decision making,’ he said.