The Prime Minister Theresa May raised hope at the Sigma Pharmaceuticals conference in Borneo that community pharmacies have a long-term future under the Conservatives by expressing her belief in a letter shown during the event that pharmacists and their teams across England “remain at the heart of patient care and community wellbeing.”

The week-long event at the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Hotel has drawn leading figures from the world of healthcare and politics to discuss a range of issues that will go a long way to deciding the fate of community pharmacy, including funding cuts, hub and spoke dispensing and service commissioning.

Yet it was May’s letter in which she gave the impression that the sector has an integral role to play in the NHS going forward that caught the eye.

“Community pharmacies remain at the heart of patient care and community wellbeing. I know there is great importance in ensuring the improvement of health in communities, helping individuals to live, work and travel with the best service,” she wrote.

“Sigma’s mission to providing an exceptional customer experience in changing times is commendable and, I am sure, highly valued by many.

“As we are in the midst of national change, I hope the conference allows partners within the community pharmacy sector to discuss how to further shape their businesses for the future.”

Steve Brine, the minister with responsibility for community pharmacy at the Department of Health and Social Care, added to the sense that the government is keen to ensure community pharmacy plays a central role in patient care by insisting it is “an essential part of primary care.”

“We celebrate community pharmacies and the work they’ve done to improve the health of the population,” he said via recorded video message from London.

“Community pharmacies play a pivotal role as a community and health asset and are often embedded in some of the most deprived and challenged communities, providing daily contact for people seeking health advice.

“Since taking up this job it has become clear to me the passion that pharmacy professionals have for their role in optimising the use of medicines and providing advice and support to their local communities.”

Brine added: “Pharmacy for me is an essential part of primary care, with over 1.2 million health visits every day. They offer inclusive, easily accessible health services, they play a key role in the prevention of ill-health, the reduction of diseases and poor health and wellbeing across the board.

“The government is committed to ensuring that community pharmacy continues to play an important role in the health of our nation.

“The introduction of quality payments in the contractual framework of England has encouraged further integration with other NHS services and recognised community pharmacy as the key to engage in the delivery of high quality services. The high take-up really is to be commended.”

Brine also said he was keen to see the decriminalisation of dispensing errors which could be realised as early as April.

“I’ve been keen to do what I can to support you which is why I’m personally committed to seeing the long-awaited legislation being passed through parliament to offer pharmacy professionals working in registered pharmacies a defence to sanctions where inadvertent preparation or dispensing errors occur.

“I’m also committed to ensuring the government consults on these defences being afforded to pharmacy professionals working outside registered pharmacies, therefore guaranteeing parity across the pharmacy professionals.

“I look forward to seeing how the removal of the fear of prosecution translates into increased learning across the sector and improvements in what I know is already an incredibly professional service.”

The Labour MP Sir Kevin Barron who is in Borneo for the conference however, took the opportunity to criticise the Conservatives over what he described as their “ridiculous” cuts to community pharmacy funding.

“To describe the last few years as challenging for pharmacy would be the world’s probably biggest understatement. This government has made many bad choices but the decision to decimate pharmacy budgets has to be up there as one of the most ridiculous,” he said.

Barron, who is also the chair of the All-Party Pharmacy Group, said community pharmacy’s clinical expertise should be “better used.”

“Dispensing prescriptions should not be the be-all and end-all of community pharmacy. I know that (pharmacists’) income is now 90% coming from that source and that is something that needs to be addressed,” he said.

“The supply function should be a platform from which you provide a range of important, valued services.”

The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee recently said it would press the DHSC and NHS England for a service-based pharmacy contract that will cultivate community pharmacy’s role in providing care for people with long-term conditions. Community pharmacy has not had a new contract since 2005.