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The effort to change minds

A famous Bushism from the 2008 crash sums up pharmacy's current situation, says Ade Williams

Fair pharmacy funding has always been a tall order for Government, says Ade Williams. But could the recent announcement from LloydsPharmacy prompt ministers to reconsider?

“If money doesn’t loosen up, this sucker could go down,” ran the pithy comment from then-POTUS George W. Bush in September 2008 as the financial crisis began unfolding in the wake of the failure of Lehman Brothers. No less a figure than Warren Buffett described this as the “greatest economic statement of all time”.

Almost 15 years later, it’s not hard to see the parallels with the community pharmacy sector in England. All our representative organisations, not to mention assorted political friends and allies, are now part of a concerted effort to Save Community Pharmacy.

The picture is very worrying, to use a gross understatement, and I find myself pondering which Bushism could sum up our collective woes. I fear it could be even worse, and that we may be getting close to a ‘Pestonian’ moment; remember journalist Robert Peston standing in the street with the cameras rolling as he broke the story of Northern Rock’s downfall?

Advocate for good

The last time LloydsPharmacy announced a programme of branch closures, the then Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth was visiting us in Bedminster Pharmacy. Jon was one of the best briefed and most knowledgeable politicians about community pharmacy I had ever spoken with – all credit to the work done by his constituency LPC.

I asked him questions on camera as we captured his thoughts, with the local Bristol press there to see him declare publicly that he would fight for the vital asset that is community pharmacy: no ifs, no buts. He also had a blood pressure check and discussed men’s health.

We all need to advocate for the good we deliver in our pharmacies, and in recent years I’ve tried to roll up my sleeves and do my bit. I can recall Easter Sunday email exchanges with a minister who had grudgingly drafted letters after being told by the prime minister and special advisers to‘‘really understand’’ what we do. As my mum would say, ‘‘If I knew things were this bad, I would have encouraged you to just go to art school!’’

Throwback?

Pharmacies have always been a mainstay of the UK high street, alongside banks, post offices, butchers, and bakeries. But sadly, recent research reinforces what many of us have long observed: the high street is changing, and many of these premises are now a nostalgic throwback. This is worrying, right? Everyone loves community pharmacy, but few understand us and value us enough. Fair funding always seems to be an unpalatable proposition for those in Government.

Even though numerous campaigns have shone a light on the help we offer and the relief we provide to other parts of the NHS system, we are undoubtedly still viewed as outsiders. After years of to-ing and fro-ing on this central misunderstanding, I now use a simple test: I listen earnestly to every policy conversation and wait to see if community pharmacy is included in the NHS primary care footprint. 

And as much as I take some comfort from having community pharmacy included in the weekly NHS primary care newsletter, I worry that this alignment could mean we do not spend time creating our own narrative.

I hope we are now viewed less as a supplier and more as an important clinical outpost, but the signs aren’t always good; remember when then-NHS chief Simon Stevens told parliament how too much money was spent paying for the supply of medicines? I recall shuddering at this as I realised how high the mountain was and how cold the summit would be.

Timing is everything, and I fear our future is now a political call. I appreciate that with wide-ranging industrial actions across the health service, the announcement of possible community pharmacy closures may not generate as much public alarm – but the relative media silence on LloydsPharmacy’s announcement that it is to withdraw from all of its supermarket pharmacies still disappointed me.

I have a recurring dream where a news reporter stands in the same spot Robert Peston did as the camera pans back to show the famous pharmacy green cross sign and a voice, full of conviction, intones: “We will fight for every community pharmacy in England.’’

Alignment is critical to navigating a safer future; it always matters who is declaring they are on your side, and when they do so. Community pharmacy is part of NHS primary care and must not be allowed to fail. I hope the slogan catches on with all political stripes aligned to this, in principle, policy and with funding.

Ade Williams is superintendent pharmacist at Bedminster Pharmacy, Bristol

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