People argue that any cut is a bad thing. Public sector budgets need to sweat and deliver, says Oliver Colvile. The vice-chair of the All-Party Pharmacy Group talks to Neil Trainis
This interview took place on October 11 – before the government’s announcement of pharmacy funding for 2016-17 and 2017-18.
“I got involved in the whole of this way back in the 1990s when Archie Norman who was, as you may know, the chief executive of, I think Asda, wanted to end up getting rid of RPM, retail price maintenance on over-the-counter medicines,” Oliver Colvile says momentarily reflecting on how he got involved in the pharmacy industry.
“As it happens, that has happened but I worked commercially for the community pharmacy group and it was to try and stop that happening and we ran a very effective campaign. So that’s how I got involved in pharmacy way back in the 1990s.”
From behind a desk in an office at Portcullis House, the Conservative MP and vice-chair of the All-Party Pharmacy Group cuts a man with a passion for pharmacy. That despite subscribing to the view of his party that pharmacy should bear its brunt of austerity just like everyone else in a strained NHS.
“What the government is keen to do is make sure there aren’t too many pharmacies in one place. I’m very keen to make sure that where pharmacies are in the rural communities that pharmacies spread out,” Oliver says.
“But the idea that having a complete parade of shops when you’ve got several pharmacies at the same time, I think that’s something the government quite rightly is going to look at.”
After the release of the APPG’s report of the inquiry into primary and community care in June 2016, its chairman Sir Kevin Barron said there was “a gulf between government and community pharmacy on their plans for the sector.” Oliver is asked if that “gulf” still exists.
“I think to say ‘oh yes, there’s a huge gulf’… we had Alistair Burt (the former pharmacy minister) come and talk to the group of pharmacists at the Conservative party conference and I thought he was very much in touch with what’s happening.
“We’ve got a new minister now and we’ve got to make sure that he’s properly briefed and he understands exactly what is being suggested. But there are a number of issues which I think is important.
“First of all is the decriminisation of pharmacists and we’re going to be putting a question down, we haven’t done so already. At the moment a pharmacist can be prosecuted for criminal stuff whereas a GP can’t be. That’s where decriminalisation is an issue.
“It’s been long-running but we were told it we were going to have to wait until after the Scottish elections because they wanted to introduce various bits of measures in Scotland. That has now happened and here we are nearly four or five months later and nothing seems to have happened, so I’m going to ask that question.”
At the risk of diversion, Oliver is asked if his chairman at the APPG was exaggerating when he used the word ‘gulf’ to describe the government’s plans and those of pharmacy.
“Kevin has got his own views. I wouldn’t say that. What is important is that the government should engage with pharmacy on a regular basis and that is something which they have got to do,” Oliver insists.
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a gulf because after all, there are pharmacists who are employed by the Department of Health and Keith Ridge (chief pharmaceutical officer) in particular.
“So I think it would be silly to claim that there is a big gulf between the two. Do I think government has to talk to pharmacy? Yes. Do I think pharmacy has a significant part to play within the National Health Service and taking pressure off GPs and things like that, yes I most certainly think that is the case.
“The government needs to make much more use of pharmacists and as you may know, Jeremy Hunt asked me to be the champion for pharmacy for the government which I’m very happy to go and do.”
Barron went on to say: “Both sides, ultimately, want better care for patients. That is best achieved by agreeing a common way forward, saving us from an acrimonious contract imposition.”
There are those who believe negotiations between the PSNC and government are not negotiations at all but imposition as the late Kirit Patel once suggested.
“My reading of this is the PSNC represents the large companies like Boots and people like that,” Oliver says. “The people who are also involved in this is the Royal Pharmaceutical Society who are for pharmacists rather than the pharmacy companies.
“What the government is very interested in doing is looking after pharmacists rather than the big companies necessarily. What they’re trying to do is create opportunities for pharmacists much more so and I think that is the approach to go down the route of.”
Oliver is asked if he thinks the PSNC is toothless. “I think they are part of the pharmacists and pharmacies, I think that is most certainly the case, but do I think that they are a bit toothless? No, I think they’ve been quite effective.”
The government has been scathed by pharmacy over its cuts to the profession’s budget. The criticism has been fierce but, through the eyes of many, justified.
“We spend an awful lot of money on our National Health Service. My argument is pharmacy has a big part to play in delivering the health services within the National Health Service,” Oliver says.
“It can most certainly take some of the pressure off the GPs and it can also take some of the pressure off accident and emergency. It has a significant role to play. I would be encouraging the government to make greater use of pharmacies.”
Following the release of that APPG report Oliver said the government and pharmacy should “focus on developing the next generation of clinical services.”
Swingeing government cuts to pharmacy funding make it difficult to envisage the profession developing very much moving forward. Oliver looks unimpressed.
“There is a great belief that if any cut in the way of money is a horrendously bad thing, we should just carry on spending money right, left and centre,” he says. “We still have as a country a very large deficit which has got to be sorted out.
“The Prime Minister has made it clear that isn’t going to happen in the lifetime of this parliament but we still have a priority to live within our means. That is something that is incredibly important but what we do need to make sure is that we make greater use of pharmacy because it can actually deliver services at a value for money.
“There are some people who do actually argue that any cut of any sort or description is a bad thing. I think what you need to do is make sure that public sector budgets actually sweat and deliver.
“Local authorities for instance have had to take a significant reduction in the amount of money and they are delivering in my opinion actually quite a good service. They’ve got to think of other way of doing things, making greater use of taxpayers’ money and making sure that is going to be much better spent.”
The government’s decision to reduce pharmacy’s budget not only caused a furore. It left a bad taste in the mouth. In September National Pharmacy Association chairman Ian Strachan accused David Mowat, the pharmacy minister, of “going back on his word” to take his time to reassess the cuts.
“I think that the other people who also involved were the Treasury. So it may have been that he found himself under some pressure from the Treasury,” Oliver says, lowering his voice to almost a whisper.
So pharmacy’s funding fate was out of Mowat’s hands? “To a certain extent, yes,” Oliver replies.
Delays and pauses to the funding cuts as well as plans for hub and spoke dispensing has left the impression that the government has stuttered along without any sense of reality or what it is they are doing.
“I think anybody would say that the whole of this summer has been a very interesting experience being in this place for the simple reason there has been a change of government,” Oliver says.
“We’ve decided as a country to come out of the European Union. Is it that everything is normal? No it has been a fairly, major traumatic summer we’ve ended up having politically, of which this is part of it.”
Other issues pertinent to pharmacy and patients have taken a back seat while pharmacy’s funding crisis has hogged the limelight in recent months.
“We should be looking at shared records so my medical records can be shared by the GP but also by the pharmacy too,” Oliver says.
“But it’s got to be done with the consent of the patient. But an awful lot of people think that the pharmacy can already get access to medical records. And the government and Jeremy Hunt has made it quite clear that he’s very keen on delivering shared records.”
It is not only the sharing of records but pharmacy’s ability to write into records that counts but we seem a long off that.
“At the moment we are, yes,” Oliver says. “We need to put some pressure on the government to actually deliver.”
Dr Jill Loader’s revelation to this year’s Pharmacy Show that the average viewing of patient records per pharmacy was 0.3 a week hardly covered pharmacy in glory.
“Well there was a big, big issue where some thought that records could actually be shown not by naming individuals for them to undertake some research,” Oliver says.
“What I am very keen should not happen is insurance companies should not be able to view individuals’ records because…it’s about risk. So I’m very much against that happening.”
Not much flusters Oliver. Not even the playful suggestion that life as an MP is much simpler compared with a community pharmacist’s hectic existence.
“We deal with people’s lives as well. In general terms we have to make decisions about how government should work. I have an enormous amount of time for what pharmacists are doing and they deal with individuals on a day to day basis.
“I deal with individuals both in my constituency and my constituency surgery and I desperately try and help people when they have problems to do with their benefits or housing or their immigration, their visa and things like that too.
“I think pharmacies do a much more dedicated job than members of parliament try and do. We all try and do our level best and I have a great deal of time for what pharmacists do and the contribution they make to people’s health.
“I deal with more than just people’s health. I have to deal with a whole series of issues.”
Oliver’s CV
  • Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton & Devonport.
  • Vice-chair, All-Party Pharmacy Group.
  • Comes from a naval family: father served as officer in Royal Navy for over 30 years; grandfather was First Lieutenant of Plymouth’s Naval barracks; uncle was Royal Marines officer.
  • Member of Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
  • Other All-Party Parliamentary Groups: Armed Forces (vice-chair), Built Environment, Mental Health, Dementia, Cricket, Basketball, Rugby, Horse Racing.
  • A cricket fan and member of the Addis Army branch of the Barmy Army.