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Do, or be done to

By Outsider

Time is immutable and, what with one thing and another, it’s a certainty that’s worth hanging on to right now. This too shall pass.

Forsaking any major catastrophes, it is likely that we will emerge into the post-Covid reality with the same Government, and the same political realities as when we entered it, which may disappoint those hoping for a ‘Boris on the road to Damascus’ moment.  

On the macro-economic level, however, the Government will be facing a dilemma on an ideological scale not seen since the end of the second world war. Having already played the Keynesian economic card as the country entered lockdown, the Government left open the question as to whether they will double down on that economic theory, or transition to the more familiar fiscal conservatism of recent years. The choice they make will have a profound effect on all of us and, of course, on community pharmacy.

Napoleon called us a nation of shopkeepers (and he wasn’t being complimentary), but as one of the last of the ‘shopkeepers’ standing, we should own that and be proud of pharmacy’s place at the heart of our communities. There should also be a moment of caution and reflection. Once social restrictions are lifted and societal norms return, will pharmacy return to its place amongst the also-rans of the high street?

There are lots of assumptions to be made in any forecasting of what a post-Covid world might look like, with one of the greatest unknowns being the time it takes to get there. Being able to trade insulates pharmacy to some extent against the economic hardships of social lockdown, but it is no guarantee of survival. Certainly, the longer the social restrictions, the more embedded the changes in individual behaviour become and the harder it is to return to whatever ‘normal’ was before.

Naturally, there are some who have embraced the change being enforced on us right now. For those with access to a car, or who switched to online shopping years ago, the current situation may pose only a mild inconvenience. Others have been plunged into isolation, despair and potential danger.

Community pharmacy effectively bridges that social divide. It’s equally accessible to all, democratising access to frontline healthcare irrespective (in the main) of affluence. There is hard work to be done in the interim between now and then, whenever and whatever ‘then’ is. Local and national representation will need to adjust to each changing set of circumstances deftly. We will need to champion our cause, without falling into the trap of coming across as a proselytiser or the boy who cried wolf.

Being able to trade insulates pharmacy to some extent against the economic hardships of social lockdown, but it is no guarantee of survival

Some of the discussion will essentially be about money, and that will take time. More time than we would like – we live still in permanent financial lag, both on volume and cost (the intractable margin survey). However, an equal or greater part of it will need to be about respect and recognition, locally and nationally, amongst our primary care colleagues (many of whom influence policy about us) and from politicians. Let’s not make the mistake we have made in the past of relying on our patients. Yes, they’re great cheerleaders, but they have lots of people to cheer for right now, and they are known for their prodigiously short memories.

When we look forward to next year, or the year after, what can we do to remain as the essential service in our communities and how do we keep that front and centre in the minds of policymakers? That is the discussion that we need to have as we start to prepare for some sort of return to normality.

There may not be any obvious answers or any political ‘quick wins’, but there are lessons we can learn just by looking around the network of pharmacies and recognising what the ‘essential’ really looks like. Gone are the agency and sales staff promoting the latest ‘must have’ fragrance or beauty product. Gone are suffocating daily targets on items, services or sales figures. Gone are hounding conference calls about promotion x, y or z. Gone is the pressure on waiting times. Instead, we worry each day whether our colleagues are well. Are their family and friends well? How do I adjust the workload to accommodate their childcare? Is there enough PPE to keep the team safe?

Community pharmacy backed itself into a corner for many years by being such a successful ‘footfall’ or ‘revenue’ driver that businesses were able to use and profit from us while managing to forget that they actually depended on the pharmacy and the pharmacy team.  

It would be a huge failing on all of us if, after there is a return to ‘normal’, we allow that to be done to us again.

Outsider is a community pharmacist




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