WRITING in The Yorkshire Post over the summer, I warned about the devastating impact that Government cuts to pharmacies could have on our local communities and our NHS. And I invited the new Minister, David Mowat, to re-think the plan.
In September, it seemed that the Government might be listening when the Minister told a conference of pharmacists that he was shelving the cuts programme so he could “spend the time... to make sure we are making the correct decision, and that what we do is right for you, right for the NHS and right for the public more generally”.
Hear, hear, we said. Mowat was right to look again at this. After all, his predecessor as health minister, Alistair Burt, admitted that that up to 3,000 pharmacies – one in four of those across the country – could shut under the drive to slash millions from pharmacy budgets between now and April 2018. That could mean the closure of 300 chemists across Yorkshire and the Humber, forcing many frail and elderly people to make longer journeys to get the medicines and expert advice they need.
The National Pharmacy Association has condemned them as a “dangerous experiment”.
And the public made their opposition loud and clear when the largest ever healthcare petition – now signed by over 2.2 million people – was handed into Downing Street last May by cross-party campaigners and myself.
But last week the Government announced it is pressing ahead with a bumper package of cuts that will reduce pharmacy funding by £113m for this financial year and by a further £95m in 2017-18 – a 22 per cent hike on the original £170m earmarked for cuts.
Last week, I forced Mr Mowat to come to the House of Commons to answer an ‘urgent question’ from me about these cuts to the crucial frontline service provided by pharmacists.
The Minister, a chartered accountant before he became a Tory MP, admitted that he just “didn’t know” how many pharmacies will close or which areas will be the worst hit. The Department of Health’s own impact assessment similarly stated that “there is no reliable way of estimating the number of pharmacies that may close as a result of this policy”.
While such candour and clarity from Ministers is refreshing, it is appalling that the Government appears determined to drive through these cuts without any understanding – or thought – for the consequences.
Equally, the Government was unable to say – when I asked them – what the downstream costs to other parts of the NHS might be if pharmacies closed. Evidence from Pharmacy Voice shows that one in four patients would seek a GP appointment if their local chemist faced closure.
In areas of higher deprivation, like in my own Barnsley East constituency, that figure rises to four in five. This just piles on even more pressure on our already overstretched NHS at a time of another looming winter crisis.
The Government claims to have come up with a ‘Pharmacy Access Scheme’ that is supposed to ease the impact of the cuts for pharmacies that are not in so-called ‘clusters’.
But my research has found that only around one in 10 pharmacies nationwide are likely to be eligible for any help – and even those who do so will still have to make cuts.
That’s why I am now demanding an urgent vote in Parliament against these cuts. If the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his ministers are so confident that they have devised such a brilliant plan for our pharmacies, why not give MPs a vote on the issue?
The reason is that they might just be in for a nasty shock. It’s not just Labour MPs who have supported the campaign about the threat to thousands of pharmacies. Several Tory MPs spoke out in the Commons last week against the cuts.
Colne Valley Tory MP Jason McCartney compared the potential closures to the losses of the last bank branches in rural towns and villages. Of the Government’s plan, he told Ministers: “I am sorry but I just do not have confidence in it.”
In Yorkshire and the Humber, there are 1,266 community pharmacies that dispense almost 10,000 prescription items every month, as well as supporting public health and providing invaluable medical advice and support on a range of issues.
Every pharmacy that is forced to shut its doors will mean hundreds of often frail and vulnerable people having to make longer and more expensive journeys to get the help they need.
If Ministers are so confident that these cuts to community pharmacies are “the correct decision”, let’s have a vote in the House of Commons. But we should do so before it is too late and we see many of our pharmacies closed for good.
Michael Dugher is the Labour Member of Parliament for Barnsley East and a former member of the shadow cabinet.