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Pharmacists pour cold water on ‘Government plans to use them during NHS strikes’

A pharmacist stocks shelves at a chemist in Dublin as Health Minister Mary Harney was urged to be cautious about adding a 50 cent fee on every drug prescribed to a medical card holder as part of a range of health service savings in the Budget.
A pharmacist stocks shelves at a chemist in Dublin as Health Minister Mary Harney was urged to be cautious about adding a 50 cent fee on every drug prescribed to a medical card holder as part of a range of health service savings in the Budget.

Pharmacists have poured cold water on reported Government plans to draft them in for help during NHS strikes, with one branding it “categorically impossible” unless funding is increased.

Senior chemist Fin McCaul said the sector was already facing a workforce crisis and could not be stretched to follow the plans without better investment.

The proposals, reported in the Sunday Telegraph, would see pharmacists given permission to screen people for minor conditions and prescribe antibiotics to reduce demand for GP appointments.

Under the plans, community pharmacies would be allowed to diagnose health problems such as urinary tract infections (UTIs) and Strep A, according the paper.

But Mr McCaul, a fellow of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), said pharmacists are facing the same financial pressures as nurses and other NHS staff preparing to strike this winter.

“To take this on with no increase in core funding, with no new funding, would be categorically impossible,” he said.

“Half the pharmacies in the country are struggling to keep their doors open.

“We’re not even funded enough to do the core.”

Mr McCaul, who has been a pharmacist for more than 30 years, said chemists were “technically” more than capable of carrying out such plans, but only if it came with an investment increase.

Community pharmacies usually receive most of their funding through contracts with the NHS as well as local authorities and clinical commissioning groups, while some supplement this through retail activities and private services.

Health Feature
Capsules are measured out in a high street pharmacy (PA)

Mr McCaul said: “It would make far more sense for us to being doing this on a routine basis anyway because we’ve got the access to patients, the medicines and the testing to make sure they can have the antibiotics and to check they have the UTIs, strep throat, or whatever it is.

“But there’s huge ‘but’ in all of it. Just like nurses and doctors, community pharmacies are grossly underfunded. We’re on our knees.”

He added: “And has the Government come and asked us to do this? Not a hope.”

Pharmacist and former regional RPS representative Reena Barai, who runs a family chemist in Sutton, echoed Mr McCaul’s scepticism over the reported plans without more funding.

She said: “Ironically this is something we’ve been asking for for months already, but like I say the Treasury haven’t come forward with the funding for this really valuable service.

A cocktail of issues including medicine supply problems and workforce shortages mean that pharmacists will be unable to push themselves further on current budgets, she said.

“To add this sort of level of service to what we’re already doing – it would buckle the whole sector,” Ms Barai added.

Janet Morrison, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), an industry body representing chemists, said: “Community pharmacy teams have repeatedly shown that they have the skills, ambition and accessibility to help support patients and the NHS through moments of crisis.

“But this winter, pharmacies are approaching their own crisis as years of underfunding, efficiency squeezes and workforce problems take their toll.

“Pharmacy teams are in the same position as their health service colleagues – exhausted, overworked, and struggling to make ends meet.

“If Government wants pharmacies to step up again, they will need to back this with emergency funding and support.”

The Department of Health has been contacted for comment.