LAST summer, I wrote in The Yorkshire Post about the threat of closure facing hundreds of our local community pharmacies due to the Government’s proposed cuts in funding.
Now I don’t know if Prime Minister Theresa May reads The Yorkshire Post – I hope she does – but we’ve recently learnt that it was around that time that she privately raised her own concerns about pharmacy cuts with ministers and ordered a secret review of the policy.
Sadly, the review did not lead to a change of heart. The Government decided to press with its plans to cut £208m from the community pharmacies budget over the next two years.
Those damaging cutbacks could result in very many of the 1,266 pharmacies in Yorkshire and Humberside closing or reducing their hours and services. This can only add pressure to a National Health Service already in state of crisis, as even more people turn up at GP surgeries and hospitals.
But what precisely will the impact of these cuts be? The truth is it is impossible to know just how many pharmacies are at risk because of the stark contrast between what Government ministers have said in public and what we have recently discovered they’ve been saying privately.
In response to my questions in the House of Commons on October 17, Health Minister David Mowat stated the cuts might not even result in a single closure. He announced: “We do not believe that any community pharmacies will necessarily close as a result of these cuts.”
Indeed, the Health Minister denied three times the likelihood of any closures when questioned in Parliament. However, thanks to a High Court challenge to the closure plans in recent weeks, the Government’s web of deceit has become clear after private letters became public during the hearing.
In one previously private letter from Jeremy Hunt to Theresa May on August 2 last year, the Health Secretary warned the cuts could mean “500-900 pharmacies will close”.
In the letter, copied to Chancellor Philip Hammond, Hunt added: “We cannot know exactly how individual pharmacies will be affected by the funding reductions and there is a risk that some pharmacies may close as a result.”
Hammond went even further in a second private letter on August 11, telling Mrs May he supported the subsidy cut to what he described as an “inefficient and over-subsidised market” to move chemists “away from the traditional bricks-and-mortar business model”.
It is a similar story over the information that the Government has published about community pharmacies and the data that ministers chose to keep secret. One published Impact Assessment (IA) about pharmacy closures said: “The potential impacts in this IA are assessed on the basis that there is a scenario where no pharmacy closes… It is not the Government’s intention to reduce the number of community pharmacies.”
Yet we have learnt that, in September 2015, one of Jeremy Hunt’s senior advisers wrote a secret memo actually welcoming the prospect of closures. The Department of Health’s deputy director of procurement and efficiency wrote: “We must remember that there are an estimated 25 per cent too many pharmacies, so some level of closures would not necessarily be a bad thing.”
And an unpublished impact assessment, that has only now been made public, saw the Government admit the plans meant there “may be a disproportionate effect on deprived communities”.
All of this follows recent official figures that I revealed showing how cuts could see people having to travel much further to access a community pharmacy. Ministers claimed last October that any changes in journey lengths that may result from these cuts would simply be a matter of “tens of metres”.
Yet an independent study by the House of Commons Library revealed that Government cuts could actually force 1.3 million people to travel more than a mile farther if their nearest pharmacy shut, a total of 920,419 people could have to travel between one and 2.5 miles farther, and 297,384 people could have to travel between 2.5 and 5 miles extra.
Ministers also claimed that they would ease the pain with extra cash under the Pharmacy Access Scheme.Yet every one of the 78 applications for help made so far has been rejected.
Opposition to the Government’s plans has been huge. We had the biggest petition in NHS history against these cuts. But equally gargantuan has been the scale at which ministers have been prepared to mislead the public so cynically and so comprehensively.
The NHS under this Government is in crisis. If you’re reading The Yorkshire Post today, Mrs May, then can I forcefully suggest it is time to do something about it? And you can begin by asking your ministers to start telling the truth about cuts to community pharmacies.
Michael Dugher MP is Labour Member of Parliament for Barnsley East and a former member of the shadow cabinet.