The community pharmacy sector has been battling for months to have its additional costs for the COVID-19 pandemic covered by the NHS.
This fight was given added impetus in February 2021 when — in response to a question from The Pharmaceutical Journal during one of the televised COVID-19 press briefings — prime minister Boris Johnson said that he wanted community pharmacies to have their costs reimbursed “as soon as possible”.
But since then it has gone remarkably quiet.
Ahead of the Budget on 3 March 2021, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) called on Rishi Sunak, chancellor of the exchequer, to write off a £370m loan made to the sector, saying that pharmacies had faced pandemic-related costs of “£400m and rising”.
But there was no additional funding in the Budget for community pharmacy. In fact, there was no additional funding in the Budget at all to cover COVID-19 costs in the NHS beyond 2021/2022, although Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS, told MPs on 9 March 2021 that he expects “that that will be resolved very shortly”.
In a specially convened debate on 11 March 2021 in the House of Commons, pharmacy minister Jo Churchill tried to justify the lack of action on community pharmacy funding, saying that pharmacies “have been able to access some general COVID-19 business support, including various rates reliefs and some retail, leisure and hospitality grants”, equating to “about £82m in grants”.
She also listed the additional paid services and general support for pharmacy in England, such as extra funding for bank holiday openings and the medicines delivery service, as well as funding for PPE.
There was an offer made by the government in summer 2020; however, in November 2020 it was rejected by the PSNC. Churchill said in the House of Commons in March 2021 that the Department of Health and Social Care and the PSNC are still in talks about funding.
On the advanced payment specifically, she said: “I expect to deduct any agreed funding from the £370m advance payments, and to discuss timescales around the advance separately with the PSNC, being very mindful of the pressures.”
This is a welcome change in tone from the minister, but the sector deserves to see real action.
During the debate, Peter Dowd, Labour MP for Bootle, Merseyside, said that he feared “current funding levels may already be causing irreversible damage” to the sector.
Shadow health minister Alex Norris then noted that the £370m loan to pharmacies is 1% of the amount spent on NHS Test and Trace.
“Given what the Public Accounts Committee said about the effectiveness there, community pharmacies, which are getting a 100th of the funding, have probably had 100 times the impact,” Norris added.
Evidence suggests that closures are more likely to widen health inequalities exposed by the pandemic. An analysis by The Pharmaceutical Journal shows that three times as many community pharmacies are closing in deprived areas, compared with their more affluent counterparts.
Giving community pharmacies funding to cover their COVID-19 costs does not seem to have been such a big problem elsewhere. Pharmacies in Wales recently got all the money they requested to cover COVID-19 costs when the government promised them an additional £3.5m. In Scotland, pharmacies have had nearly £10m of funding to help with their COVID-19-related costs.
Meanwhile, in England, GP practices were asked to submit claims for their COVID-19 costs in August 2020.
We urge the government to make good on its promise and expedite this reimbursement as soon as possible. Community pharmacies have played a vital role in the pandemic response and this is the very least they deserve. PJ