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England sees net loss of 101 pharmacies in 2023, FOI request reveals

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In its response to a Freedom of Information Request (FOI), the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) has confirmed a net decrease of 101 pharmacies in England — with 371 closures and 270 new contracts for the year ending March 31, 2023, compared to the preceding year. Meanwhile, the General Pharmaceutical Council data projected a drop of 43 registered pharmacies in England, Wales, and Scotland during the same period.

The data, released by business advisor Christie & Co in its annual pharmacy market review on Sept. 5, revealed a total of 14,328 pharmacies across all four UK country regions as of March 31, 2023, indicating a 0.3 per cent decrease from the previous year. Corporate operators experienced a net reduction of 249 pharmacies, while the total number of independent operators remained consistent with 2022.

According to the study, the corporate sector saw the most substantial shift, with a 13.7 per cent reduction in businesses operating 300 or more pharmacies. Following closely, groups managing 11 to 15 pharmacies experienced a 5.6 per cent decrease. Christie & Co attributed this shift in group size to operators acquiring additional pharmacies through corporate disposal opportunities throughout the year.

The report noted that on a contract-type basis, it’s worth acknowledging that only England has 100-hour and distance selling contracts among the 11,779 registered pharmacies. Additionally, the report emphasised that the sector is primarily dominated by regional multiples, with companies managing over 300 pharmacies constituting only about 34 per cent of the overall market.

Rising wages spark employment worries

Recent reports from the Office for National Statistics indicated a record 7.8 per cent annual wage growth in the UK up to June 2023. This surge has compounded employment challenges, establishing it as one of the most pressing cost issues in the sector, Christie & Co said in its study.

The report highlighted that pharmacists and qualified staff are increasingly attracted to roles in GP surgeries and PCNs due to the ongoing Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme. Referring to data released in NHS England’s May 2023 Primary Care Workforce Quarterly Update, the report noted that 6,331 FTE pharmacists and 2,124 pharmacy technicians have embraced roles under this scheme.

While this aids the government’s commitment to enlist 26,000 new staff in general practice by 2024, it offers no relief to the ongoing employment crisis faced by the pharmacy sector, the report noted.

Surge in locum demand

Although some contractors discussed a brief alleviation in locum costs in the first half of 2023, workforce demands persistently propel locum rate hikes in three of the four UK country regions. Notably, only Scotland saw a reduction, with average rates declining from £48.86 in July 2022 to £45.36 in July 2023, the study said.

According to data from Locate a Locum, average locum rates in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland increased to £37.14, £42.60, and £28.66 respectively. Analysis of 160,000 pharmacy shifts between June 2022 and July of this year, conducted by Locate a Locum, revealed an average hourly rate of £38.44 for a locum pharmacist in the UK.

Looking at UK towns and cities, this data sample indicates an average increase of 3.5 per cent in locum rates overall. However, there are notable variations. Inverness saw the most significant drop, averaging at 14.8 per cent, while Cardiff experienced the highest increase at an average of 30.3 per cent.

“Regional variations highlight market complexities, local challenges, and widespread NHS pressures,” said Jonathon Clarke, CEO of Locate a Locum. “Community pharmacies grapple with heightened dispensing demands while steadfastly supporting NHS services. This occurs amidst a backdrop of reduced funding, drug shortages, and store closures. Market dynamics are leaning more heavily on locums to sustain operational continuity. Notably, we’ve seen an uptick in negotiations between pharmacies and locum pharmacists, aiming to enhance shift fill rates and subsequently decrease the necessity for emergency cover.”

Meanwhile, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and Pharmacist Support charity have underscored the vital importance of safeguarding pharmacy teams from burnout to ensure uninterrupted patient safety. Their report, ‘Pharmacy Workforce Wellbeing’, published on October 4, emerged from a May 2023 roundtable event with representatives from various sectors. It highlighted the pressing need for strategic solutions, addressing rising workloads and limited capacity in community pharmacies. The report suggested optimising skill mix and incorporating advanced technologies as avenues for capacity enhancement.

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