Speaking last night (June 23) at a Sigma Pharmaceuticals webinar, the health secretary answered questions on topics including the forthcoming healthcare bill, the COVID-19 vaccination programme and the £370 million advance funding for the sector’s COVID-related costs.
In his opening remarks, Mr Hancock praised pharmacy as being “the heart of primary care”, adding: “For me, nothing has shown the incredible capability of community pharmacy better than the vaccine programme.
“The local efforts that have made it a national success, the way that people have stepped forward, the way that people have used their place at the heart of communities to make this work – you are helping the country out of the pandemic.”
“Big shift” in vaccination programme
Asked by C+D about the sector’s involvement in a future COVID-19 booster vaccination programme, Mr Hancock confirmed that there would be one, but that the government was waiting on some clinical results – including the co-administration of flu and COVID vaccines, and information on patient cohorts – before setting out the details.
However, he told the webinar: “I am looking for a big shift in the vaccination programme towards delivery through pharmacy.
“In terms of the use of our clinical capabilities as a country, you want people to be operating at the top of their license, and frankly we need GPs to be back in surgeries practising medicine in the normal way, whereas a vaccination can be done by a range of different trained clinicians,” Mr Hancock explained.
“That’s very much the direction of travel, but it has to be value for money for the NHS and the taxpayer.”
“Biggest ever flu programme” needed
As “almost nobody” had caught flu in the past 18 months, “we know immunity will be down and we’ve got to deliver the biggest ever flu vaccination programme alongside the booster shots for COVID”, Mr Hancock stressed.
“I have absolutely no doubt after everything that’s been achieved in the last 18 months that you can help us rise to this challenge and play a major part in it,” he told the Sigma webinar audience.
The desire for pharmacy to be more heavily involved in vaccine administration is part of Mr Hancock’s wider belief that “prevention is better than cure”. Mr Hancock said that he wanted pharmacy “at the heart of that vision” as he discussed plans for a new healthcare bill to be introduced to parliament later this year, which seeks to overhaul the NHS.
The proposed healthcare reforms include bringing day-to-day running of the NHS back under the control of the health secretary, replacing clinical commissioning groups with integrated care systems and ditching competition rules around tendering of NHS contracts.
Mr Hancock commented: “We are not going back to the old way of doing things.”
20m GP appointments “should be” referred to pharmacy
As many as 20m GP appointments every year “could be referred to community pharmacists – and they should be”, Mr Hancock said. “I want to see people with minor illnesses referred to pharmacies.”
Despite a desire for community pharmacy to take on more primary care work, when asked about issues with the Community Pharmacist Consultation Service – such as the low uptake of the service among GPs – Mr Hancock said he did not have an assessment of the issues.
No answer still on COVID loans
Asked about the issue of writing off £370m in advance funding given by the government to help pharmacies cope with the additional pressures and challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Hancock remarked: “I thought this might come up and I know that the costs were paid for, but there hasn't been that reimbursement.
“It's something I'm working on, but I apologise, I can't say anymore.”
Also speaking on the webinar was Mark Lyonette, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association – which has been campaigning for the government to write off the debts. He told Mr Hancock that “sincere” sentiments from government ministers about pharmacy were mixed with “contradictory” messaging, such as over funding.
The challenge is: “How can we get excited and mobilised and deliver – we’re a can-do sector – when at times those messages are contradicted with some of the messages around funding,” Mr Lyonette asked.
Mr Hancock responded that the “win-win” in terms of funding would be to maximise the use of funding while maintaining value for money for the NHS.
French model, online pharmacy and compulsory vaccinations
In 2018, C+D exclusively revealed Mr Hancock’s wish for community pharmacy to move towards a French model, with a focus on “prevention rather than cure”.
“So much more early primary care and preventative work is done in pharmacies in France than is normal in the UK,” he said last night, reaffirming his support for the model. “I think people just haven't thought about it enough on a policy level, and that's on us.”
Mr Hancock was also asked about online pharmacies – the growing presence of which has been a topic for debate. He told the webinar that different pharmacy models had been useful during the COVID-19 pandemic, but added that “we've got to make sure that the way that policy works is flexible enough to take that into account”.
Former pharmacy minister Steve Brine asked about last week’s announcement that care home workers will be required by law to have two COVID-19 vaccines come October, with the possibility of this being extended across the NHS. Mr Brine asked what this would mean for pharmacists.
“We're going to consult on this,” Mr Hancock replied, remarking that the issue was “not straightforward”, as although community pharmacy is part of the NHS, pharmacists are not directly employed by the NHS, but act as private contractors.