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New health secretary has an opportunity to help NHS

The new health secretary Matt Hancock has an opportunity to help the NHS by revealing the government's plans for community pharmacy closures, says Numark’s Jeremy Meader.

Sadly, we’ve seen a number of pharmacy doors close recently, in some cases permanently. In others, we’ve seen investors deciding to try and transform the fortunes of businesses that another organisation regarded as no longer viable. Hats off to those investing, as their commitment to the future of pharmacy shows passion, dedication and resilience in a valiant attempt to mitigate the pace of pharmacy closures.

The dramatic resignation of the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, David Davis, followed swiftly by foreign secretary Boris Johnson, kick-started a domino effect within the Conservative party, as Jeremy Hunt made the rapid transition from the health office to Mr Johnson’s post. Enter Mr Hancock.

We must hope that Mr Hancock, who worked as an economist for the Bank of England for many years before being appointed as a special advisor to then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne – prior to his role as culture secretary – will bring some much-needed stability and financial insight to the commercial viability of the current NHS. We must ensure that pharmacy is firmly on his radar.

So far, the real impact of pharmacy closures at patient level is relatively difficult to measure. But between November 2016 and April 2018, 156 bricks-and-mortar pharmacies in England shut their doors, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DH). This will impact patients – particularly the elderly, vulnerable and those with chronic conditions.

Wouldn’t it be much fairer to pharmacy owners, and ultimately patients, for Mr Hancock to come clean and publically declare the number of pharmacy closures that the government is seeking, together with a sensible closure plan, rather than standing back and inflicting 'death by a thousand cuts'. While still painful, this would at least give the pharmacy sector the opportunity to plan more proactively, collaborating on delivering the reduction in pharmacy numbers while minimising the impact on patients, staff and the wider population.

There is too much uncertainty around the future of pharmacy. Patients need pharmacy owners to be investing in their stores, to improve existing facilities and services and to be able to offer new services that benefit local communities across the country. The current environment just isn’t allowing the profession – which should be applauded for the service it provides to the NHS – to function effectively with confidence in its future.

We have to hope and indeed lobby Mr Hancock to provide genuine leadership and to do the right thing for pharmacy. And for the millions of patients the sector serves every day.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Again, you have to hope that pharmacy gets its fair share of the recently announced increase of £20.5 billion for the NHS by 2023. Indeed, Theresa May stated that budgets for social care and public health would be put forward at the next spending review, saying “these areas needed to be supported both for the benefits they bring in themselves and to relieve pressure on NHS care”.

So perhaps this injection of funding, the appointment of a minister with a degree in economics and May’s suggestion that support for public health is on the cards will in fact be a catalyst for positive change for the pharmacy profession. Or is that too much to ask for? Only time will tell.

Mr Hancock has a unique opportunity to open the door for a much more constructive dialogue with the pharmacy profession. Let’s hope that before too many more pharmacy doors close, common sense prevails and the pharmacy sector is recognised.