New Prime Minister Liz Truss has chosen Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, to replace Steve Barclay as health and social care secretary. We take a look at what the appointment could mean for pharmacy. 

Ms Coffey led Ms Truss’ leadership bid, and has also been appointed Deputy Prime Minister.

She will be the fifth health secretary in just four years, and has most recently served as work and pensions secretary since 2019.

Upon accepting the role, she tweeted: ‘I am honoured to be asked to serve as SoS for Health and Social Care. Patients are my top priority, as we focus on ABCD - ambulances, backlogs, care, doctors and dentists’ – prompting Thorrun Govind, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society English Pharmacy Board, to tweet: ‘There is more to primary care than doctors’.

However, in past debates, Ms Coffey has seemed to recognise the opportunity that pharmacies have as a frontline service within communities.

During a Parliamentary debate about cost of living increases, York Central MP Rachael Maskell said to Ms Coffey: ‘I chair the all-party parliamentary group for ageing and older people, which has just had an inquiry into the matter.

‘One thing we suggested was that, since a lot of older people visit their GP at some point, GPs should be active in asking their patients whether they are eligible for pension credit. That would help them to claim the benefits that they should be able to attain.’

Ms Coffey replied: ‘I know that we have had paid advertising in post offices and in GPs’ waiting areas in the past; doctors often tell us that they do not necessarily like to be attached to benefit claiming and similar matters, but I hear what the hon. Lady says, and my understanding is that we intend to resume that contact.

‘I have also asked the leading pharmacy chains to be involved, because that is often a more regular way in which people get help. We will try different outlets, in addition to those we have tried in the past, to make people more aware of the potential opportunities.’

While she insists that she will not seek to overturn abortion access, Ms Coffey has previously voted against increasing access to abortion. In a free vote in the commons, where MPs vote based on personal beliefs rather than along party lines, Ms Coffey voted against making at home abortion pills permanently available after they were temporarily allowed during the pandemic.

She also opposed extending abortion access to women in Northern Ireland and in 2010 introduced a motion in Parliament calling for 'mental health assessments' for women seeking abortion.

Abortion charities have accused Ms Coffey of putting her personal beliefs 'above expert clinical guidance'.

Speaking on Sky News, Ms Coffey said, ‘I’m conscious I have voted against abortion laws’, but added that she was not ‘seeking to undo any aspects of abortion laws.’ In an interview with Sky News in June following the overturn of Roe v Wade in America, Ms Coffey said that she would ‘prefer that people didn’t have abortions’, but said that ‘abortion law isn’t going to change [in the UK]'.

Commenting on the Ms Coffey’s appointment, Ms Govind called on the Government to intensify its work towards a ‘Pharmacy First’ approach in England, and focus on prevention, long-term conditions and value from medicines.

She said: ‘The new Secretary of State is faced with an urgent challenge to improve patient access to care, whilst ensuring hard-working frontline health professionals get the support they need. Pressures are already building ahead of what will be another challenging winter for the NHS.

‘I look forward to working with her on how we can make the most of our health and care workforce to support the NHS recovery, which is at the heart of our work with The King’s Fund on developing a vision for pharmacy practice in England.

‘As inflation bites and cost of living pressures dominate the agenda, an increased focus on the NHS budget will need fresh thinking on how we support prevention, deliver best value from our medicines, and better manage long-term conditions in the community. I hope the new Government re-energises the progress made towards a potential “Pharmacy First” approach in community pharmacy to support patient access to care.

‘This must be supported by a long-term workforce plan backed up with multi-year investment in education and training, which has been delayed year after year but will be vital for training the staff we need to deliver patient care for the future. This must include support for the next generation of Pharmacist Independent Prescribers, who will make a huge difference for patients.’

The Company Chemists’ Association also welcomed Ms Coffey’s appointment, saying: ‘The Secretary of State will find that community pharmacies are invariably solutions providers, as proven by their heroic actions during and since the pandemic. While pharmacies stand ready to support the Secretary of State in busting the backlog but are under incredible pressures of their own.

‘The NHS must urgently undertake a holistic look at primary care to ensure resources are directed where they deliver the most benefit to patients. This must be underpinned by a fully funded and integrated workforce plan.

‘Community pharmacy needs immediate investment. It’s clear that a real-terms cut in funding spanning eight years is having a deeply concerning impact on the sector’s ability to care for patients. It is only with investment that community pharmacy’s full potential can be realised so it can deliver more for patients and ensure the best value for taxpayers.’

A version of this article previously appeared on our sister publications Pulse and Nursing in Practice.