Community pharmacists have voted overwhelming to press ahead with industrial action on contractual and patient safety issues stating it is now 'end game' in the face of funding pressures.
At a closed meeting in Belfast on Monday night, 98% of community pharmacy contractors in attendance voted for action.
The meeting was attended by 95 contractors representing 418 pharmacies in Northern Ireland.
Community pharmacists say they have reached breaking point and have major concerns about how to maintain the safe and on-going supply of medicines as a result of underfunding and a 'work-force crisis' in the sector due to a shortage of pharmacists and locums.
Chief Executive of Community Pharmacy NI, Gerard Greene said: “We have been warning the Department for years of this growing crisis. A litany of unresolved issues stemming from sustained underfunding now means that community pharmacists have reached breaking point.
“Over 123,000 people visit pharmacies in Northern Ireland every single day. The ability to access this service and professional advice keeps people out of GP surgeries and hospitals.
“Community pharmacists already play an enhanced role in transforming our health service but until the Department engages in meaningful talks to stabilise community pharmacy funding and address the current issues, then it is only paying lip service.”
Alliance Health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw MLA has said the Health Minister must heed the warning and take immediate action to avoid industrial action by community pharmacists, after they voted to press ahead with it as a last resort.
The South Belfast MLA stated: “I have been standing with community pharmacists warning about the growing crisis for four years, because they provide an essential service to over 100,000 people every single day.
“They are more than just medical professionals. For many people, they are an integral part of the community, working long hours to provide expert guidance as the true frontline for the health service in every locality.
“Only yesterday, I raised again in the Assembly during the debate on the Supplementary Estimates the urgent need to address the huge pressure on community pharmacies, given so many pharmacists are now going practice-based.
“Astonishingly, the Estimates in fact removed £8 million from pharmaceutical services, which just shows the warnings have not been heeded. What is needed is £20 million – a tiny share of the overall health budget – which would provide real value not just because it would secure the future of frontline medical professionals, but because it would restore a central pillar of every community in Northern Ireland.
“The Minister must heed the warning that this is small money for a big difference.”
SDLP Health spokesperson, Sinead Bradley MLA said: “Despite apparent cross party consensus around the importance of local pharmacies in delivering vital services to the public, there is no evidence of practical support from the Department of Health. It is a damning indictment of this lack of support, that 98% of community pharmacies feel no other option but to take industrial action. The SDLP supports this difficult but necessary action.
“Across the North community pharmacists are struggling; government funding has been cut, and local chemist shops are having to make staff redundant and reduce opening hours, ultimately damaging our communities.
“Some years ago, the Compton Review, reinforced by the Bengoa plan, envisaged an enhanced role for Community Pharmacy in the transformation of how healthcare is provided here, but this intransigence will, I fear, lead to chemist closures and will have a severe impact on people’s access to healthcare.
“I will be engaging with Health Minister Swann and colleagues on the Health Committee to see what action can be taken to support this vital sector.”
The decision on what action community pharmacists will take will be formalised in the coming weeks with many stating that the severity of the situation will force them into action that they have never taken before.