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House of Lords Hansard
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20 July 2020
Volume 804

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that independent pharmacies are able to continue to support the communities in which they are based.

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My Lords, I pay tribute to the immense contribution being made by community pharmacies in the epidemic. We are hugely grateful for the unequivocal commitment that the sector has shown and we want to make sure that the sector is treated correctly. We have made available £370 million in advance payments to aid cash flow, providing funding for the medicine delivery service for shielded patients and increased drug reimbursement prices. We are talking to the sector about additional funding for Covid-19 costs.

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I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for that response but, as I am sure the whole House will agree, independent pharmacies in so many small towns such as Yarmouth and places such as the Isle of Wight are now the heroic first line of defence for GPs and the NHS. The most vulnerable in these communities depend on them for medical advice and deliveries of vital prescriptions, which they offer for free. In my view, it is totally unrealistic for the department to point to some recent funding help as if that has solved the problem. It is nowhere near enough to keep the pharmacies in business, let alone to allow the pharmacists to have a day off or even earn a living. It just demonstrates that the department fails to understand why independent pharmacists are still in such grave peril. May I please urge my noble friend to meet a delegation of these front-line heroes, to hear directly why their businesses continue to hang by a thread? When they fold, they will not be replaced.

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My Lords, I agree with every word of the tribute of the noble Lord, Lord Grade, to the role of community pharmacies, particularly during the epidemic. They have played an absolutely pivotal role in communities, with advice, medicines and support, and I pay tribute to their hard work and commitment. I would be very pleased to meet a delegation to discuss the challenges that they face.

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My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Grade, says, throughout recent months during the coronavirus crisis many independent pharmacists have served an important role in supporting their local communities. Does my noble friend agree that their role would be enhanced—indeed, it would be vital—if they offered flu vaccines as the autumn and winter months approach? What can the Government do to ensure that they are able to offer this potentially life-saving facility?

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My Lords, the role of pharmacies in the administration of vaccines is critical. Not only will the standard flu vaccine be coming up shortly, but, if today’s news is to be taken on the level, the possibility of a Covid vaccine is at some point on the horizon. That is why we are talking to the sector about the role that community pharmacies can play in the greater administration of vaccines, both of flu and of Covid.

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My Lords, will the Minister indicate what further discussions will take place with the National Pharmacy Association to ensure that community pharmacies become the front line for giving out services that would normally have been dealt with by GPs and emergency departments, to ensure that they take the flak and slack off the National Health Service and continue to provide an essential service to the wider community?

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As the noble Baroness is probably aware, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care spoke at the annual conference of the National Pharmacy Association, at which he reiterated his commitment to the sector. The noble Baroness puts it well: pharmacies have something very special and valuable because of their trusted role. We very much want to see an enhanced role for pharmacies in the delivery of healthcare.

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Does the Minister agree that independent pharmacies are of particular importance in rural areas, where they are often the only source of advice and information, as well as prescriptions and equipment, for people with disabilities and their families? Will the Minister confirm both his support for these rural pharmacies in particular and the Government’s commitment to ensuring that they can continue to provide all these vital services?

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The noble Baroness is entirely right. Although the vast majority of people live within a 20-minute walk of a pharmacy, many people face issues with location. That is why we will continue to maintain the good level of access that we have through the pharmacy access scheme, which provides additional financial support to pharmacies in areas where there are fewer pharmacies. Our commitment remains fully in place.

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My Lords, clinical commissioning groups can commission local pharmacies to carry out tests on their patients, such as for blood pressure or atrial fibrillation. This would relieve local GP practices. How widespread is the adoption of this way of using pharmacies and what is being done to increase its uptake by clinical commissioning groups?

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The noble Baroness is right that pharmacies can play an enhanced role, particularly in providing the kinds of services that mean that people do not have to visit their GP. If we have learned one thing from Covid-19, it is that GP surgeries can be a source of infection and that GPs can sometimes be much more impactful working away from home. That is why we support exactly the kind of initiative that the noble Baroness outlines.

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My Lords, we know that the health service faces the herculean challenge of dealing with pent-up demands caused by the coronavirus pandemic, including for postponed elective surgery and delayed preventive interventions. Community pharmacists have proved themselves a key element of assistance during the crisis and should have an important role to play in future in helping to clear the backlog by bringing more care into the community. What plan do the Government have to expand the clinical role of pharmacies and what steps are they taking to ensure that pharmacies are far better integrated into the primary care system?

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The noble Baroness is entirely right. We have introduced a new framework—the community pharmacy contractual framework—which has down- played some services that were not offering value for money but has enhanced some services that have made a huge impact, many of which are of a clinical nature. The settlement also includes a transitional payment, which will help to secure the financial resilience of the pharmacy sector. We could not be more committed to the community pharmacy sector. I believe that the future of healthcare in this country will depend much more on the role of pharmacies delivering the kinds of services that the noble Baroness outlines.

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My Lords, the essential difference between community pharmacies and dentists and doctors and so on is availability, which is much greater in community pharmacies. Availability, continuity and reliability are things that all patients benefit from. I am therefore very supportive of this. I remember so often as a dentist hearing from patients that they had had dental pain at some incredible time and the pharmacy was the only place where they could get any immediate help. I would like the Minister’s assurance that this will continue.

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As the father of four small children, I completely endorse the noble Baroness’s point. Many a night have I been outside a hard-working pharmacist’s shop looking for advice, support and essential medicines. I pay tribute to the hard-working community pharmacy sector, whose pharmacists are often up until midnight helping their local communities and hard-hit fathers like me.

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What advice has the department had from local directors of public health about the resources that are necessary to ensure continuity for community pharmacies during local lockdowns?

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We are fully engaged with the sector. The National Pharmacy Association and the other stakeholder groups are in close communication with the department to ensure that they have the PPE, medicines and finances to keep going during the epidemic. The voice of the DPHs is involved in that stakeholder engagement.

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My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.