At the Stormont Assembly last week, politicians queued up to urge Health Minister Edwin Poots to act decisively to prevent the closure of community pharmacies in rural and ‘disadvantaged areas’.
As so often happens in these debates, every party, including the Ministers’s own DUP colleagues, stepped up to lambast the Minister’s decision to cut funding to pharmacies by 30 per cent.
That assault on pharmacy budgets was, Sinn Féin’s Daithí McKay warned, putting a “frontline service” under unbearable pressure. The unilateral move to cut funding to community pharmacists had left pharmacy owners staring into “an abyss”, said the SDLP’s Mark Durkan.
DUP and Alliance spokespersons were equally outspoken.
In his defence, Minister Poots argued that our drugs bill, as a society, was 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.
For while his actions may indeed bankrupt pharmacists, especially those who took on debt to buy shops, you can be certain the banks will sell off those pharmacy licences to new operators which will ensure the service remains. Thus the overall reduction in numbers of pharmacies will not take place.
Moreover, there is no attempt to manage this reduction in a way which will protect the vulnerable in our areas of greatest need.
The result therefore will be more hardship for those already bearing the brunt of this recession.
Minister Poots shouldn’t hide behind the judicial review. If he had moved to sort out this issue earlier, there would have been no need for pharmacists to have sought the protection of the courts.
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.