Chancellor Rishi Sunak speaks next to prime minister Boris Johnson during a budget statement at the House of Commons in London, March 3, 2021. UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS

Protests are taking place this week in the constituencies of several government ministers, including the health secretary, the prime minister, and the chancellor, asking the government to make good on the commitments it made to community pharmacy in England.

The protesters – independent contractor members of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) who operate in the home constituencies of ministers from both Treasury and Health departments – have warned the government not to backtrack on promises it made to cover the sector’s Covid-19 costs.

Prime minister Boris Johnson told a Downing Street press briefing on 10 February 2021 that he would “make sure they [pharmacies] are reimbursed as soon as possible” for the costs contractors incurred during the pandemic. He also said at the same briefing: “I don’t want to see any pharmacies close.”

‘Whatever it takes’

For his part, chancellor Rishi Sunak famously said at the start of the pandemic that he would do “whatever it takes” when it came to helping the NHS. On 11 March 2020, he said: “Whatever extra resources our NHS needs to cope with coronavirus – it will get…whether its millions of pounds or billions of pounds…whatever it needs, whatever it costs, we stand behind our NHS.”

Yet, as the NPA chief executive, Mark Lyonette, put it: “The government continues to drag its feet over offering proper financial assistance for pharmacies.”

Lyonette said, “this latest campaign initiative brings the matter close to home for the decision makers, in their own constituencies.”

Pharmacies are displaying posters and distributing leaflets, which warn that funding cuts and Covid costs have taken many pharmacies to the brink of closure.

The NPA itself has placed adverts in local newspapers and influential political websites, highlighting the £370m-plus Covid costs which the government has so far refused to reimburse pharmacies – despite a clear promise from the prime minister.

Lyonette added: “The prime minister promised to give the NHS whatever it needs to cope with coronavirus and pharmacies are a vital part of the NHS frontline. We need government to make good on commitments to meet all the additional costs associated with coronavirus and also address long-term underfunding – so that pharmacies can stay open to keep people well and save lives.”

One pharmacist who has taken the matter into his own hand is Jonathan Cooper, owner of Coopers Chemists in the Richmond constituency of chancellor Sunak in Yorkshire. He has has been leading the protest there.

Cooper said: “My pharmacy and many others like it have continued to see patients in the community while other parts of the health system could not offer this vital service.

“Had community pharmacies not worked so hard to keep their doors open during this national crisis, things would have been far worse.

“As a result we have incurred massive extra costs and the government needs to cover this as promised. We want to give a message to Mr Sunak: our door is open – please let us keep it that way by reversing these devastating cuts!”

MPs to debate pharmacy and the impact of Covid-19 

Meanwhile, the All-Party Pharmacy Group (APPG) has secured an opportunity for MPs to debate and discuss pharmacy and the impact of Covid-19 in parliament on Thursday, March 11 at 1.30pm.

Jackie Doyle-Price, Conservative MP for Thurrock and chair of the APPG, said: “…there is a real issue with regard to the moneys advanced to pharmacies to deal with the consequences of the pandemic. It now needs to be clawed back and that is going to hit our pharmacists, who have been at the front end of the fight against the pandemic.

“I just remind ministers to get together with the NHS to come up with a solution to this. Notwithstanding the fact that pharmacists are independent providers, they are very much part of our NHS and should be treated as part of the NHS family.”

Doyle-Price, an ardent supporter of pharmacy, was one of several MPs who were vocal during a parliamentary debate following the 2021 Budget announcement in which no provisions for pharmacies were made.

Peter Dowd, Labour MP for Bootle and APPG member, said: “…I was disappointed to find that there was not, as far as I can tell, anything in the Budget statement that in any way sent a message of support to the pharmacy sector, let alone any practical or financial support for it. A key sector in the fight against Covid through the vaccination programme has been cut adrift, yet the government still ask a sector that is under strain to pull out all the stops.”

“…I want to highlight some of the concerns and recommendations identified in the APPG’s report of December 2020 and the themes brought out in it that are affecting the sector. First, the government should review the response from pharmacies during the pandemic and re-evaluate a clear vision of what we need from these undervalued frontline healthcare workers…a reassessment by finance teams in the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS of the value of pharmacies would be welcome…the government should write off the advance payments as an immediate way of providing relief.”

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