More than a fifth of community pharmacies have cut opening hours in one year

Exclusive: The most common drop in opening hours was between 2 and 4 hours per week, with some pharmacies reducing hours by more than 32 hours per week.
Closed sign in pharmacy window

More than a fifth of community pharmacies in England have cut their opening hours in a year, an analysis of NHS Business Services Authority (NHS BSA) data by The Pharmaceutical Journal has found.

Analysis of the ‘Consolidated Pharmaceutical List‘, which is published quarterly by NHS BSA, shows that, of 10,696 pharmacies that were operational between December 2022 and December 2023, 2,381 pharmacies (22%) reduced their opening hours during that time.

Of the pharmacies that have cut their hours over the past year, they have, on average, opened their doors for 10.5 fewer hours per week.

Community pharmacies in England are usually required to open for 40 core hours, unless they have a specific exemption from NHS England, but they can also open for ‘supplementary’ extra hours if they choose.

NHS England does not have to approve a cut in supplementary opening hours.

The most common drop in opening hours was between 2 and 4 hours each week — a change made by 490 pharmacies, while 263 pharmacies cut their opening hours by up to 2 hours each week. A total of 19 pharmacies had cut their opening hours by more than 32 hours each week.

The Pharmaceutical Journal‘s data analysis also revealed that the number of pharmacies open for 100 hours or more per week has declined significantly over the same period of time.

In December 2022, there were 942 pharmacies open for at least 100 hours each week, but this number had fallen to 197 by December 2023, a drop of 79%.

Sarah Holmes, chief medical officer at charity Marie Curie, said the diminishing availability of out-of-hours community pharmacy is “extremely concerning”.

“Terminal illness does not respect the clock. Access to palliative medicines out of hours can be complicated and time consuming but it needn’t be, and is crucial for people with a terminal illness, especially in their final year and months of life,” she said.

The number of 100-hour pharmacies increased when amendments to NHS regulations were introduced in 2005 in an attempt to improve pharmacy provision and competition.

These offered exemptions to previous regulations that prohibited new contractors from joining the pharmaceutical list unless it was “necessary or expedient” to provide adequate pharmaceutical services locally. These exemptions included pharmacies that would commit to opening for at least 100 hours each week, as well as those located in large shopping centres and those providing pharmacy services online.

The exemption was then removed in a 2012 update to the NHS regulations, after the government highlighted that the lack of control on where 100-hour pharmacies could open had led to a “clustering of 100 hours per week pharmacies close to each other”.

Then in May 2023, as part of an attempt to address workforce and financial pressures facing community pharmacies, further amendments to regulations were made, which allowed existing 100-hour pharmacies to reduce their minimum opening hours to 72 hours per week.

Under the amended regulations, pharmacies that held 100-hour contracts would have to remain open between 17:00 and 21:00 from Monday to Saturday, and between 11:00 and 16:00 on Sundays, to maintain out-of-hours pharmacy provision.

Louise Ansari, chief executive of Healthwatch England, which is part of the Care Quality Commission and champions patient views, said that patients were reporting increasing difficulty in accessing their medicines, partly because of temporary and permanent pharmacy closures.

“The reduction in opening hours across many pharmacies in recent years is likely to have further contributed towards these difficulties.

“We are concerned about the reduction in 100-hour pharmacies, which particularly help working-age adults to conveniently get medicines for themselves and their families; and who also support people who need urgent medication for problems that develop out of hours.”

Community Pharmacy England (CPE) said its own analysis of NHS data confirmed that there had been both a reduction in the number of pharmacies opening for 100 hours each week, and a reduction in supplementary hours offered by pharmacies with 40-hour contracts.

Gordon Hockey, director of legal at CPE, commented: “All pharmacy owners are facing significant financial and operational challenges, leaving them with no choice but to make tough decisions to keep their businesses going.

“The reductions in pharmacy opening hours are a disappointing but necessary consequence of the continuing financial squeeze on the sector.”

Responding to The Pharmaceutical Journal’s analysis, a spokesperson for NHS England said: “Integrated care boards oversee pharmaceutical services for their local populations, ensuring services are available and responding to needs assessments conducted by health and wellbeing boards.

“The NHS is committed to supporting pharmacies across England to respond to local demand and developed new national guidance in May 2023 to allow variations to opening hours with their commissioner’s agreement.”

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, March 2024, Vol 312, No 7983;312(7983)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2024.1.271517

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