This government has so far proved they are not good at listening. They failed to listen to the voices of nearly two and half million people - the largest healthcare petition in history. They failed to listen to the voices of reasoned debate, when MPs from all parties brought up the issue again and again in parliament. They failed to listen to patient groups and frontline pharmacists and have instead pushed through short-sighted cuts that will see small businesses up and down the country suffer, all the while impacting the overstretched - which we all know really means underfunded - NHS.
We have been continuing to fight hard against this short-sightedness ever since it was first announced fourteen months ago. In spite of Theresa May making a show of supporting pharmacies during her leadership bid and many ministers in her own party voicing their concerns, the government decided to go ahead with the cuts anyway. As the new financial year nears, independent pharmacies are now beginning to feel the bite. It is clear that it is the Treasury who are really running the show for the NHS, and the government will make their cuts at any cost.
It is for this reason that the pharmacy bodies are now taking the matter to the courts by undertaking a judicial review; the process whereby the people affected by government decisions can ask the high court if the decision was made in a lawful manner. We believe that the Department of Health failed to properly consider the impact of these cuts on the poorest in society - nor did it understand how the impact of their plans to cut the community pharmacy budget would affect people with protected characteristics such as age, disability, sex and race. The cuts will hit the most vulnerable, the elderly and the poorest in society the hardest.
Pharmacists currently provide the public with immediate, free access to trusted medical advice. Unlike other areas of the NHS which have under-provision in areas of deprivation, pharmacies actually have relatively more provision in poorer areas than more wealthy ones. Due to the cuts, pharmacists will have to reduce staff and limit their services to patients. This means that either people will have to make an appointment to see their GP, go to A&E or go without healthcare. This will put even more pressure on the woefully underfunded NHS - pressure that will increase much more if further planned cuts to pharmacy go ahead.
Pharmacy is one of the keys to saving the NHS, and the government has decided instead to implement cuts, clearly displaying that they do not understand its value. And this round of cuts is just the beginning - it has been made clear that they wish to see warehouse-style, robotic delivery systems, completely ignoring the value that face-to-face care from a pharmacist provides to patients. There's a reason that experts tell you not to Google your symptoms - robots and AI are simply no substitute for face-to-face care. Automated prescription delivery should be only one small part of the pharmacy arsenal that begins with and revolves around face-to-face care from a professional human being. There is a future that allows recent technological advances to enhance the pharmacy sector without gutting it, replacing it with robots, or leaving it exclusively for those corporate interests who can afford to continue once all the small businesses are forced into decline. The Department of Health must look carefully at which future they would like to see for the NHS, and we hope that the courts will reverse their poorly-thought-out decision, and that the DoH will work with the sector to achieve a better future for patients all over the country.
If the government does not change course and listen to frontline pharmacists desperately trying to make them see sense, I foresee a desperately bleak future for community pharmacy and indeed the whole of the NHS - a hole in the high street and in the chain of healthcare that will never be filled.