Jeremy Hunt is set to consider “dubious” and “irresponsible” proposals to cut out licensed pharmacists and instead allow technicians to hand over prescribed drugs.
The plans, which the Health Secretary could roll out to all community pharmacies, risk causing “serious harm” to patients as they slash the clinical expertise at hand, it is claimed.
But Hunt’s rebalancing board argues technicians should be allowed to conduct clinical assessments without a qualified pharmacist present as it would “make the best use of every member of staff’s skills.”
Rules which say a licensed pharmacist should be on site at all times could also be scrapped under the proposals - as it stands, pharmacists must be in the chemist to make clinical interventions.
The Department for Health has stressed the board will consult wider with pharmacists, patients and the public before putting forward final proposals.
The Government cut its community pharmacy budget by 4% in 2016/17 to £2.687bn. Contractors expect the budget to be shaved further - to £2.592bn - for the 2017/18 financial year.
Julie Cooper, Labour’s shadow minister for community care, said: “The Government’s plans for community pharmacy are in chaos. Jeremy Hunt says there’s no plans to change the rules for supervision of pharmacies but at the same time internal Department of Health documents show they’re drawing up ways to staff pharmacies on the cheap.
“Community pharmacies play an important part in delivering frontline healthcare, providing an excellent service for the public and reducing the pressure on other parts of the health service. At the heart of each and every community pharmacy is a highly qualified community pharmacist.
“Pharmacists train for five years and are the most accessible health professionals. Removing the requirement to have such a pharmacist on site is a backward step that will impact on the levels of service provided and will lead to an inferior service for patients.
“Jeremy Hunt urgently needs to make clear why he’s telling MPs one thing and his Department are saying another. This ongoing uncertainty is bad for pharmacies and it’s bad for patients too.”
The news comes a month after Hunt told Labour MP Hilary Benn no such plan was afoot and two weeks after pledges to “design safety in” to pharmaceutical care.
Ian Strachan, National Pharmacist Association chairman, said: “Pharmacists dispense about a billion medicines a year and must intervene on more than 6.5 million occasions. Without those interventions there is no doubt that some patients could come to serious harm.
“Medicines have the power to harm as well as heal and it’s irresponsible to even contemplate downgrading safety procedures in pharmacies.
“Pharmacy technicians play an important role in many pharmacy teams, but this is not the same role as the pharmacist, who undergoes years of pharmacological training in order to qualify. The curriculum for technicians is very different.
“The same dubious thinking behind these proposals also sits behind cuts to pharmacy funding in England and the Government’s support for online pharmacies. It’s all about healthcare on the cheap.
“The Secretary of State himself recently stated there are no plans to remove pharmacist supervision of medicines supply.
“Now it transpires that plans to downgrade medicines safety procedures are still on the table. Jeremy Hunt must now tell his officials to get in line with the commitments he himself has made on patient safety.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “We want to make the best use of every member of staff’s skills in pharmacies. Any changes made to who can dispense medicines would always be properly consulted on and would never compromise the safety of patients.”