Letter from Sir Liam Fox MP - Pharmacies in Portishead

It has been apparent for some time that the closure of Boots on Portishead High Street would produce a capacity problem for the dispensing of prescriptions. More and more patients have been migrating to the pharmacies at West Hill and Waitrose or even to Boots in Nailsea or Clevedon. This has placed a heavy burden on the Portishead pharmacies which are much smaller and have a limited physical space and staff capacity to handle the increased demand.

I recently met with the regional management of Boots to try to persuade them to change their minds and maintain their store on the High Street. They were clear that the problem did not come from the profitability of their pharmacy business, but the overall viability of the store. This has been diminishing since the pandemic and we are all aware of the impact that increased levels of online shopping have had on the retail sector in general. Portishead High Street itself is testament to the impact that the massive increase in online shopping has had on the viability of local retailers.

The best solution to the current problem would be to attract a new pharmacy of some sort to open and take pressure off West Hill and Lloyds. I hope to speak to the management of Superdrug in the coming days to see if they might see the exit of Boots as a potential opportunity for their business. I hope our local Town Council and District Council will do all they can to help attract new capacity though it is ultimately a commercial decision for any business.

Since April 2023 the new Integrated Care Boards, part of NHS England, have had responsibility for commissioning pharmaceutical services. I have written to them in recent months about the situation in Portishead, including the availability of Sunday prescribing services, and will continue to do so.

I have also been in contact with the Department of Health and Social Care who monitor coverage of pharmacies so that no one has to travel too far to find one. While it is clearly not the business of government or Parliament which shops should open in any particular city, town or village, the ICBs need to consider not only the number of pharmacies available in any locality, but their capacity to deal with the size of the population.

Pharmacy in the UK in general is currently undergoing changes which are extremely welcome, but which produce their own challenges. 1.8 million people visit a pharmacy every day, with over 1 billion prescriptions being dispensed every year.

The government recently announced its Pharmacy First scheme, which allows community pharmacies to supply prescription-only medicines for the first time for seven common conditions including sinusitis, sore throat, earache, shingles, and uncomplicated urinary tract infections in women. The government has invested £645 million in the scheme with participating pharmacies receiving a £2000 upfront fee, a £1000 monthly fee and payments for each item of service (such as consultations or prescriptions) carried out. Additionally, a new contract (the Community Pharmacy Contractual Framework) is currently being negotiated between community pharmacy England (the pharmacist’s representatives), the Department for Health and Social Care, and NHS England.

Community pharmacies have faced substantial pressures since their last contract was negotiated five years ago, including two years of the pandemic, the inflationary surge following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and additional pressures such as the increase in the living wage, which has placed extra costs of up to £200 million in the sector. Having met representatives of community pharmacists in Parliament, I will be watching these negotiations closely. It is essential that the interests of the small business pharmacies, the health needs of NHS patients and the interests of taxpayers are properly balanced.