The slashing of frontline pharmacy budgets at the very time when government is pledging to prioritise investment in the working class neighbourhoods of areas like North Belfast should set alarm bells ringing at Stormont.With some of the worst levels of ill-health in Europe, North Belfast has depended on the services of its community pharmacies for the best part of four decades.
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that we find community pharmacists in the most underserved areas of North Belfast – Ardoyne, New Lodge, Tiger’s Bay, Mount Vernon – because that’s where the need is greatest.
Sadly, after a decade of telling us that the community pharmacists were to play a new and vital role in health strategy – relieving GPs and casualty departments of dealing with minor ailments – the Minister for Health Edwin Poots has reversed course and now plans to close at least 100 pharmacies.
There is no be to method to this slash-and-burn policy, no protection offered to community pharmacies serving those whose needs are greatest. It will simply allow those pharmacies which can’t cope with their reduced payments to go to the wall. And that is hardly a strategy any government, not least a government which is promising to deliver during this term of office, can stand behind.
In this newspaper we have covered comprehensively the mental health issues which plague our communities – their devastating impact manifested most alarmingly in the plague of suicide afflicting our young. The care provided by community pharmacies was one part of the health strategy to combat this issue but now it is being torn asunder by a short-sighted edict from the Minister for Health, who now assures us that community pharmacists aren’t that important after all.
That would belie the experience of our readers who have benefited enormously from the expertise, advice and civic engagement of community pharmacists over recent decades. Indeed, that’s why plans to give pharmacists a more central role in healthcare were welcomed by those working class communities who suffer disproportionately from ill-health.
Minister Poots argues that our drugs bill, as a society, is too high. There are few disputing that fact. Nor would anyone dispute his claim that he cannot engage directly with pharmacists because the outcome of a judicial review is awaited. However, the fact is that Minister Poots forged ahead with his cut on pharmacists – resulting in 125 redundancies to date with more, sadly, on the way – despite being warned that it would not lead to the result he desired – a reduction in the number of community pharmacists – without affecting detrimentally the healthcare service to working class communities.
Ultimately, the Minister’s blunt approach will lead only to more chaos in the community pharmacy service at a time when we need a steady hand on the Health Service tiller.