Jayne Dowle: Cutting pharmacies is not the remedy to save NHS

Barnsley East MP Michael Dugher and local residents held a protest against the Government's plan to impose cuts to community pharmacists outside Vantage Pharmacy in Worsbrough.
Barnsley East MP Michael Dugher and local residents held a protest against the Government's plan to impose cuts to community pharmacists outside Vantage Pharmacy in Worsbrough.
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I SEEM to remember hearing that pharmacists were to become the frontline troops of the NHS. In this version of the future, it would be to the corner chemist we would head instead of the doctor’s surgery or A&E should we find ourselves troubled by a minor ailment or just in need of advice.

Like many other people, I already visit our local pharmacy a lot more than I trouble my GP. If someone in the family has a cough or cold, an eye infection or aching joints, I trust the helpful lady behind the counter to point me in the right direction. And, quite often, she will also suggest a more cost-effective option than paying out for a prescription.

What could be wrong with that?

A great deal if the Government’s latest intentions are anything to go by. I suppose that in today’s NHS we shouldn’t be surprised to find that pharmacies are now under threat rather than being the first port of call.

Health Minister David Mowat has announced sweeping cuts to pharmacy funding; if these go ahead, central Government investment would fall by four per cent or £113m next year and a further £95m the year after. This would make the business of many local pharmacies unsustainable. It’s estimated that thousands would have to close.

Mr Mowat promises that “every penny saved by this re-set will be reinvested and reallocated back into our NHS to ensure the very best patient care”. Note the interesting use of the word “our” there. I very much doubt that Mr Mowat, who is the Honourable Member for Warrington South, understands what it means to access NHS services across the country.

And be in no doubt. These reforms are essentially based on geography. Put simply, the plan is to reduce what are euphemistically called “clusters” of pharmacies so that one business serves a wider area.

And here’s the problem. A study by Durham University has shown that pharmacy clusters occur most in areas of greater deprivation and need. If the reforms go ahead, guess who is going to suffer? Those whose lives are already comprised by poverty, poor housing and inadequate public transport.

All power to my own MP then. Labour’s Michael Dugher, who represents the constituency of Barnsley East, has pushed for an urgent vote in the House of Commons on the cuts this Wednesday. He can speak from first-hand experience of the lifeline that pharmacies offer to those already isolated by their social circumstances.

Mr Dugher has asked the Minister to reassure him that the areas of greatest deprivation will not lose the pharmacies on which they rely. He says he is not convinced by the answers he has received so far. Neither am I.

What the Minister simply fails to comprehend is how people actually use pharmacies. I’ll give you an example. I actually took my son to the doctor’s the other week for a stomach complaint. As we sat waiting for the surgery chemist to dispense his prescription, we fell into conversation with an elderly lady.

In her 70s, she lives alone, with no family. She is entirely reliant on her (unsteady) legs, the infrequent bus and expensive taxis to get around.

The chemist turned out not to have all the items she required for her various health problems. Even though she faced a walk of three-quarters of a mile to the pharmacy up the road to collect the rest, at least this lady had a choice. If this pharmacy was to close, she explained that her only guaranteed alternative would be to walk to the bus stop, catch a bus into town, disembark, trek from the bus station and head to Boots.

This lady is just one of millions of individuals whose health would be adversely affected by the closure of her local pharmacy. Does Mr Mowat want them all on his conscience? At least the lady we were talking to still had mobility and independence. What of those people who have neither?

I know that pharmacies offer a free delivery service in some areas However, this is over-stretched as it is. And it will prioritise those in most need. Do those who support the cuts have no understanding of what it is like to be a mother with no car and a sick child, trailing for miles in the rain to get emergency medicine? Or to be a carer for an elderly or vulnerable relative who requires a plethora of regular prescriptions?

Let’s not forget either that pharmacists have a valuable role in preventing health problems from requiring the attention of a doctor, and may be able to signpost those in need towards accessing the specialist services they require.

That’s why I will add my voice to that of Michael Dugher.

To cut pharmacies at a time when the NHS is under more pressure than ever before is madness on a grand scale.

To do so in communities already under severe stress, and to people who find it hard enough to access the services they need, is irresponsible in the widest sense.

Speaking directly from such a community, I urge MPs to persuade the Minister to rethink before it is too late and to seek savings elsewhere.