Jackie Doyle-Price is a former Health Minister and is MP for Thurrock.
Since the Covid-19 crisis began, pharmacies have been the face of healthcare on our high streets. While GP’s surgeries have closed their doors, 11,500 local pharmacy teams have stayed open, putting their lives at risk and working tirelessly to ensure the public can still access critical services and life-saving medicines.
Responding to extraordinary circumstances, many former pharmacists have returned to the frontline, and we have seen pharmacies open early, stay open on bank holidays and close late to meet increased demand. They have delivered millions of prescriptions to the most vulnerable, and provided face-to-face consultations to keep pressure off our hospitals.
We need to recognise their hard work and sacrifice – and get behind this less glamorous but critically important part of our NHS. Five pharmacists have already died of the Coronavirus, and many still cannot access sufficient PPE.
In the longer term, the virus will drive a reassessment of the role that pharmacies play in our NHS – but only if we can prevent thousands from being forced to close due the costs of staying open and address the need for better a funding system.
Since the outbreak began, pharmacies have spent upwards of £3,000 a month extra on staffing and £1,000 on safety and security costs. In a relatively low-margin sector, where more than half of pharmacies were in deficit before the crisis began, not recouping these costs will drive many to the wall.
The £350 million Government loan is a sticking plaster – repaying it will make many pharmacies non-viable. I am calling on the Government to turn this loan into a payment for our local pharmacy heroes.
This would be the first step in putting pharmacies on a viable financial footing. The second step will be to re-examine the pharmacy funding formula to ensure that they are appropriately financed. It matters because pharmacies are not only the unsung heroes of the coronavirus – they may also hold the keys to the long-term sustainability of the NHS.
As we look at how we organise and provide healthcare in a post-virus environment, we have a real opportunity to unleash the real value of a network that reaches into every part of the UK. 95 per cent of us live within 20 minutes of a local pharmacy and 1.6 million people visit one every day.
Pharmacies have a huge and still largely untapped role to play in supporting increased demand for healthcare driven by an ageing population, the obesity crisis and rapid advances in medical technology.
They already provide a large range of healthcare services, delivering a million flu jabs annually, providing access to emergency contraception, diabetes and obesity management, heart health MOTs, and help for the 24 per cent of adults who take three or more prescribed medications.
But many people are still not aware of how their pharmacies can help them. We need to raise their profile and make them the first port-of-call for non-critical ailments, so we can take more pressure off doctors and A&E. Pharmacies could also play a much greater role in prevention and public health – two keys to the future of the NHS. Post-Coronavirus, we need to look again at what our pharmacies can do.
We also need to start viewing them differently. The NHS establishment has often been somewhat leery of pharmacists, seeing them as a commercial partner rather than a critical part of the NHS family. Hopefully seeing our pharmacists step up during Covid-19 has put pay to that kind of thinking.
I am delighted to have been chosen as the new Chair of the All-Parliamentary Group on Pharmacy. Let’s put our cross-party support behind the unsung heroes of the coronavirus – and recognise that they are at the heart of our healthcare system.