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When the lights went out


When the lights went out

By Arthur Walsh, editor, P3pharmacy

It’s shaping up to be the summer of pharmacy’s discontent here and abroad. The end of May saw French pharmacists stage a one-day strike and take to the streets in protest against sub-inflation pay arrangements, an intense rate of pharmacy closures and their government’s handling of the drug shortages crisis. All issues that our readers will be only too familiar with.

Mais c’est typique, you might be thinking – they love a strike across the channel. Contractors here in the UK have never gone for that type of carry on, for all sorts of reasons. For one, they don’t have corporate chains in France, and the large multiples here have always put the kibosh on any whisper of collective industrial action, preferring to put their efforts into high level political lobbying.

Perhaps resistance to the idea is a deep-running thing among the profession, too. There have been headline-grabbing strikes among the NHS-employed health professional workforce since late 2022, but few – if any – in the community pharmacy sector have ever suggested following suit. The thought of creating barriers between patients and the medicines they need, even for a day, just doesn’t seem to sit easily with our pharmacy teams.

But the sector here has chosen to express its discontent in its own, less fiery way. June 21 saw independents across the UK take part in a “day of symbolic action” co-ordinated by the National Pharmacy Association as a wake up call during the election campaigning period. Business owners dimmed the lights, blacked out their windows and wore dark clothes to raise awareness of pharmacy’s dire funding crunch, with “huge numbers” taking part, according to the NPA.

The visual metaphor was clear: political decisions taken since the middle of the previous decade have forced more than 1,400 pharmacies in England alone to pull down the shutters for the last time, threatening a once-vibrant sector and endangering healthcare provision in marginalised communities. Unless the next government – whose makeup is still unknown as I write this (though we probably have an inkling) – gets to grips with funding then many more businesses will switch off the lights for good.

And it wasn’t just England taking part. Pharmacies in Northern Ireland – which were on the point of taking industrial action in 2020 but called it off when the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic became clear – were enthusiastic participants in the NPA’s day of action.

It wasn’t a strike and no one stormed Whitehall with placards, but judging from the national coverage that day, the protest appears to have achieved some success in steering the conversation at a critical juncture. “This is a massive step and the first day of its kind,” said NPA chief executive Paul Rees as he and his colleagues set about delivering the message to representatives of the major political parties.

The new government will have umpteen interest groups pushing to have their voices heard. Let’s hope that gestures like the NPA’s blackout day help to guide the incoming health secretary’s attentions to the untenable difficulties our pharmacies face.

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