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Treasury's Covid loan demand 'putting pharmacies in England at risk'

Denis Campbell Health policy editor
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA</span>
Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Hundreds of pharmacies in England could be forced to close because the Treasury is demanding repayment of emergency loans it gave them to help stay open during the Covid pandemic.

Ministers have been warned that most closures will occur in poorer areas and will hamper both the Covid vaccination rollout and the annual winter flu jab campaign.

Pharmacy leaders claim that thousands of England’s 11,500 pharmacies are at risk because the Treasury is insisting that they pay back much of the £370m it gave them last year.

Related: Johnson defends 1% pay rise despite NHS staff exodus warnings

“The government’s decision to demand repayment of the Covid-19 funding given to pharmacies will put many at risk of closure,” said Simon Dukes, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee.

“Sadly most of these closures are likely to hit hardest the areas of the country where pharmacies are most needed. We hope Rishi Sunak will intervene urgently,” he added.

Dukes wrote to the chancellor before his budget last week and asked for the £370m to be written off. However, his request appears to have been rebuffed.

In his letter to Sunak, Dukes said: “Last year, you said the NHS would get whatever resources it needs to deal with the pandemic. However, we understand from Treasury officials that this is not the case for NHS pharmacies.” The chancellor did not address the issue in his statement last Wednesday.

Pharmacies have used the money to make their premises safe and secure to stay open during the pandemic, with screens, personal protective equipment and cleaning to protect staff.

Related: NHS England calls up people aged 56-59 for Covid vaccine

The health minister, Jo Churchill, lauded the key role pharmacies play in dispensing medicines and health advice when she announced the first tranche of £300m funding for pharmacies in April. “Every day community pharmacies carry out critical work to protect the health of the public and support the wider NHS. This is even more important now as we face this unprecedented time,” she said.

“We hugely value the role of the community pharmacy, which is why we are backing them with £300m of advanced funding to support them as we continue to assess the full additional impact of coronavirus on community pharmacy,” she added.

Ministers made further loans of £50m and £30m, bringing the total to £370m.

Scores of pharmacies are administering Covid vaccines, and during 2019-20 pharmacy teams delivered 1.5m of the 14.5m flu jabs administered in the UK.

The Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said discussions with the pharmacy sector were ongoing. They said: “Community pharmacies make a vital contribution to the NHS, and, throughout the pandemic, they have gone above and beyond to serve their communities, including in the vaccination rollout.

“To help them tackle Covid-19 we made £370m available for pharmacies in advance payments, on top of a deal committing nearly £13bn to the sector by 2024. Further funding, for costs incurred during the pandemic, is being discussed with the sector.”