Michael Dugher has pushed Tory ministers over their plans to cut funding for pharmacies, which are expected to mean a drop of £113m this financial year, and £208m next year. Yesterday the former shadow Cabinet minister was granted an urgent question in the Commons after a leaked Government paper showed a new fund designed to provide support will only help 1,380 pharmacies of the 11,674 across England.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Community pharmacies play a vital role in frontline healthcare. Nearly 12,000 communities in England provide free advice to patients, and more than 1 billion items were dispensed in the community last year—an increase of 50 per cent on 2005. Reports in recent days, however, make it clear that the Government are determined to press ahead with massive cuts to community pharmacies in this and the next financial year.
Serious questions remain about the impact of those cuts. When will ministers finally publish an impact assessment of the proposed plans? How many pharmacies will close? Which regions will lose the most? Will they be in clusters or not? What will be the rate of loss in urban, as opposed to rural, areas? Will the Minister confirm that only about one in 10 community pharmacies will be helped by the pharmacy access scheme?
Community pharmacies and the cuts to them are a complete false economy for the NHS. They can only add further pressures to our already overstretched A&E units and GP surgeries. What is the minister’s assessment of the downstream costs to other parts of the NHS as a result of cuts to the community pharmacy budget, especially given the evidence from Pharmacy Voice that one in four people who would usually visit a pharmacy for advice would instead make a GP appointment if their local pharmacy was closed? In areas of higher deprivation, such as those in my constituency, the numbers are much higher.
We have seen massive opposition to these cuts, not just from pharmacies and voices on both sides of the House, but from the 2.2 million people who have signed the biggest petition in healthcare history. To conclude, ministers have, to be frank, been all over the place. We have had mixed messages and false hope. The Government announced a pause to the cuts. Is not there now a compelling case for that pause to be made permanent?
Dugher was supported in the chamber by Jon Ashworth, the new shadow Health Secretary, who said:
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) on securing this urgent question and on his exceptional campaigning on the issue. He is, no doubt, as disappointed as I am by some of the minister’s replies.
Ministers appear to be intent on pushing ahead with the cuts that have been outlined, under which thousands of community pharmacies could close and patients could lose out on essential medical services. The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee has described the Government’s proposals as “founded on ignorance” and warned that they will do “great damage”. The National Pharmacy Association says that the proposal is a “dangerous experiment” that “shows a complete disregard for the well-being of patients.”
Is that not an absolute indictment of the Government’s handling of this matter? The minister has said that he will make an announcement shortly. Given the concern among members from across the House, including Conservative members, can he be more specific and tell us when he will give us a final decision? Will he also be negotiating a solution with the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee? As the Minister knows, his predecessor talked of the potential for up to 3,000 pharmacies to close. Is that correct, in the minister’s judgment? If not, can he tell us how many pharmacies he thinks will close, and how many of those will be in deprived areas?
Has the minister had a chance to study the PwC report that describes the cash savings that community pharmacies bring to the NHS? What will be the financial impact on the NHS of more patients presenting themselves at A&E departments and GP surgeries because pharmacies have closed?
Is not the real reason why ministers are pressing ahead with these cuts the complete mismanagement of NHS finances? Hospitals ended last year £2.45 billion in the red. We have had continual warnings from experts in the NHS, and over the weekend we learned from the prime minister that there is no more money for the NHS. The secretary of state and the prime minister would be wrong to continue to ignore the advice of experts and pretend that everything is going to be okay. Unless the Government get a grip of the funding crisis facing the NHS, I fear that these cuts are just the start and that there is worse to come.