Britain's pharmacies: ITV News finds record drug shortages, customer abuse and an industry in crisis

Pharmacists have told ITV's Tonight programme that they are facing a potentially fatal cocktail of rising prices, major supply problems and a lack of funding. Social Affairs Correspondent Stacey Foster reports

Around eight of Britain's pharmacies a week are closing down, while those which stay open face record drug shortages, abuse from customers and a £1.3 billion funding gap, a new survey has revealed.

Pharmacy leaders say the industry is in crisis, yet the government is asking them to roll out more services to shoulder the burden of a stretched NHS. 

ITV's Tonight programme has surveyed 980 pharmacy workers across the country and filmed with many throughout their busiest periods, between December and early January. 

Many are facing record drug shortages, leaving patients without life saving prescriptions.

From cholesterol drugs to hormone replacement therapies, there are 111 different medicines routinely in short supply - double the number in 2022.

One pharmacist, named Ian, told Tonight that pharmacies are "truly in a time, in a period where they're at crisis".

Britain's pharmacy crisis in numbers

According to ITV Tonight's survey of 980 pharmacy workers across the UK:

  • 86% of pharmacy workers said they cannot fulfil a prescription on a daily basis

  • 93% of pharmacy workers said either they or their colleagues suffered from verbal or physical abuse

  • 71% thought abuse from customers was increasing

  • 89% of pharmacy owners in our survey said they have had months where they've dispensed medicines for the NHS at a net loss

  • 96% were concerned that their pharmacies are not financially viable

Some medicines do come back into stock quickly, but, over the past couple of years, certain medicine shortages have been particularly severe.

Vikki, who runs a pharmacy in York, told Tonight the "majority" of phone calls her business now receives are related to stock issues.

The drug shortages mean that pharmacies are having to refer patients back to GPs to discuss alternative treatments, which then increases their workload too.

Vikki said: "More stress for the GPs, more stress for the pharmacy teams because we have the same conversation three or four times and it is just grinding the whole system to a halt."

The government recently announced there are national supply issues for a range of ADHD drugs

The problems with the system remain and experts have suggested selling pharmaceuticals is becoming less profitable, which could explain the shortages.

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Patients are now clearly being affected by these issues, but in some cases they're taking their frustrations out on pharmacy workers, with over nine in 10 workers surveyed admitting they or their colleagues faced abuse.

In the last 10 years government funding for pharmacies hasn't kept pace with increased costs and inflation, meaning they have had a £1.3 billion cut to funding in real terms.

Vikki said the funding cuts mean she is "not confident" her pharmacy can "manage the additional capacity that we will need to be able to provide the service to everyone that needs it".

"We know people want to receive services in pharmacies, but what we need is a recognition that actually 10 years of progressive underfunding is not going to allow us flexibility to be able to flex and provide those services," she said.

Meanwhile, on the high street, there are now signs that the funding gap may be starting to present itself.

Lloyds has left the high street altogether, moving completely online, and this year Boots closed 300 of its pharmacies, as part of what it says is a store consolidation programme which will allow them to concentrate resources more effectively.

Pharmacies are dealing with a routine supply shortfall of 111 different medicines. Credit: ITV News

The loss of pharmacies is also affecting poorer people more, with over a third of closures in the most deprived areas of England.

Pharmacies are paid through providing some private healthcare and NHS services, but their income largely comes from dispensing prescriptions.

They are supposed to make a profit overall as they buy the medicines at a cheaper price, then the NHS reimburses them. But the price set by the NHS is often lower and pharmacies can end up making a loss.

Despite all the issues facing pharmacies in England, the government wants them to do more.

A new scheme launching at the end of this month will make pharmacies the first port of call when you're suffering from a whole host of minor ailments.

Instead of going to your GP for things like sore throat or earache, you'll be encouraged and referred by services like 111 to go to your pharmacy.

The scheme is called Pharmacy First and it has been broadly welcomed in England.

But with such high demand in our pharmacies there is a question mark over how successfully it can be delivered. 

Our survey has highlighted concerns across England, with 48% of pharmacy workers surveyed saying they do not feel confident they can provide the new services.

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