MUCH of the focus on Theresa May’s first reshuffle as Prime Minister was understandably on her new Cabinet. We watched as the high political drama unfolded, with the sacking of George Osborne, the promotion of Boris Johnson to Foreign Secretary (Minister for Diplomacy?) and other top-level changes.
But further down the ministerial food chain, there was another significant move. Namely we now have a new Minister at the Department of Health, with responsibility for community pharmacies. Out goes Alistair Burt. Enter David Mowat.
It’s fair to say that David Mowat, MP for Warrington South, is not exactly a household name in Yorkshire. Without being too unkind, he’s probably not a household name in his own household. The same might be said for me.
But this is a very important appointment. The Yorkshire Post’s readers might not have heard of David Mowat, but many will have heard about the Government’s plan to cut £170m from our community pharmacies. Ministers have admitted themselves that this real terms budget cut of six per cent will force up to 3,000 local chemists – a quarter of all those in the country – to be closed.
Across Yorkshire and Humber alone, there are 1,266 community pharmacies that dispense an average of 9,483 prescription items to patients each month. If our new Minister presses ahead with this damaging cut, it could mean around 300 local chemists closing in our region.
This is a very real threat to people’s access to healthcare, which is why I have campaigned against the cut with a cross party group of MPs, patients and pharmacists. In May, we delivered a petition against the plan, signed by 1.8 million people – the most signed healthcare petition in history – to 10 Downing Street.
I also led a House of Commons debate opposing the cut and pharmacists from across the country travelled to Westminster to tell their MP just how important community pharmacies are.
And they are growing in importance. There are 1.2 million health-related visits to community pharmacies every day. The average person visits a pharmacy 14 times a year. Since 2005, the number of prescriptions dispensed in the community has risen by 50 per cent, with just over a billion items issued last year alone.
Community pharmacies are often a first port of call for patients with minor ailments, where they can receive free medical advice and access over-the-counter medicine.
And a strong network of community pharmacies plays a vital role relieving pressure on our already overstretched A&E departments and GP surgeries. We know A&E units are under enormous pressure on this Government’s watch and that millions of people are waiting longer for a GP appointment.
By cutting community pharmacies, our NHS could be pushed to breaking point as more patients head to A&E or try to see their GP. Polling by YouGov from April shows that one in four people who would normally visit a pharmacy for advice on common ailments would instead make an appointment with their GP if their local pharmacy faced closure.
In areas of higher deprivation, like in my Barnsley East constituency, the research shows that as many as four in five people would visit their GP if their local pharmacy closed.
So cutting community pharmacies is also a complete false economy for our NHS. It will only create more downstream costs for the NHS and more pressures on our already over-burdened services.
One of the arguments the previous Minister fell rather belatedly upon was the need to tackle so-called ‘clusters’ or groupings of chemists close together on high streets.
This may be an issue in London and other urban centres, where there are sometimes several chemists in close proximity, but for the small towns and villages, like in my own constituency, there is often just one pharmacy serving the whole community.
An arbitrary budget cut across the board won’t do anything about so-called clusters. When I have challenged the Government to tell me which community pharmacies face the axe, of course they can’t tell me. It might be one in a cluster. Or it might be potentially closing the only chemist serving an entire village.
If the Government wants to do something about clusters, they need to be much more targeted. And there should be local guarantees of protected, minimum access to community pharmacies.
The new Minister does have a chance to think again and listen afresh to concerns. The Government is still in private consultation with the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee and there is still time to drop this cut before it is too late.
All new Ministers like an early win.They like to hit the ground running, grab a few good headlines and make a name for themselves. People here in Yorkshire may have not heard of David Mowat. Yet. But if he proves to be a good listener and has the courage to change the Government’s plans to cut community pharmacies, we may well be seeing a lot more of him.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East.