Community pharmacists must work together to fight government plans to cut community pharmacy funding, a group of 400 pharmacists were told yesterday.

Speaking at Sigma Pharmaceuticals’ 8th annual conference in Ocho Rios in Jamaica, Sue Sharpe, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), described the government’s plans, announced just before Christmas, as “ill-conceived, ill-thought-out” and “profoundly stupid”. 

Her colleague, Mike Dent, director of pharmacy funding at the PNSC, went into more detail. “In 2016/17, the Department of Health (DH) ripped up the rule book and decided to publish an open letter [which] announced swingeing cuts in pharmacy funding and stated some pretty strong assumptions or opinions on how the market structure can be improved, and at the same time expressed the desire to see a more clinically focused service.” 

Describing the potential impact on community pharmacy in the UK as “devastating”, Dent concluded that it was a “massive and complex programme of change in an inconceivably tight timescale” with “no clear proposals from government on how to build a clinically focused service.” He added: “These are really tough times and it’s important that everyone understands [the proposals] and has a chance to get their voice heard.”

Whilst angry, pharmacy groups were also pragmatic. “The timing of this conference, following the announcement by the government, makes it potentially the most significant event I have ever attended,” said Mike Smith from Walgreen Boots Alliance, who added that the DH showed a “complete lack of strategic thinking or direction”. However, he saved some criticism for the pharmacy profession. “For 20 years I have been talking at pharmacy conference about how our profession needs to change. We have been guilty of complacency, of coasting along, of making a good living, but things have to change. The NHS has changed at local and national level and we have to keep up. We have to work in a different way. We have to develop our relationships with everyone; patients, GPs, healthcare providers, local councils and MPs. Get out there and shout about what you do.”

Ash Soni, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, agreed that pharmacists should engage widely but also do more to demonstrate the value of the services they currently provide. “Use this as an opportunity to work with your local GP practice to enable them to provide better support to patients… We have to recognise the value that we deliver to provide better outcomes, reduce hospital admissions and maintain better life for those people. We have got to a point where pharmacists are delivering services and not being paid for them. Get the evidence to show your value.”

Analysing the situation, director general of British Generics Manufacturers Association, Warwick Smith, pointed to the politics behind the government’s announcement. “Everything done by the government is driven by the austerity programme. Austerity is their brand, it’s what they were elected to do, and it has to succeed,” he said, stating that all decision-making was driven by the Treasury, not Number 10. “This is where the Osbourne philosophy comes in… it’s about increasing transparency, it’s making the consumer better informed, it’s increasing competition, it’s using the customer and competition as the gatekeepers rather than government regulation, but the big hard stop behind that is that there will be stronger powers for the competitive authorities. As the Prime-Minister-in-waiting, he’s setting a new form of ‘old’ Conservatism, which is giving the people the ability to drive the markets.”

In spite of the fighting talk from pharmacy groups, individual pharmacists at the Sigma conference were pessimistic. One pharmacist pointed to the combative mood of the government over the imposition of the new contract on junior doctors; “If the government is not prepared to negotiate and the cuts are a foregone conclusion, isn’t the PNSC redundant?” he asked.