More than 1,000 GP practices and pharmacies have closed over the past seven years – forcing patients to travel further for care, a damning study reveals.
A major audit of official data on new openings and permanent closures from 2015 to 2022 today lays bare the tragic demise of primary care in England.
It found there has been a net loss of 670 pharmacies and 343 GP practices over this period, with the most deprived areas hit hardest.
Industry leaders and MPs last night warned the government is ‘sleepwalking into a disaster’ and called for urgent action to ‘arrest the decline’.
Failing to tackle the problem will leave people without the care they need and hit the economy, they added.
It found there has been a net loss of 670 pharmacies and 343 GP practices over this period, with the most deprived areas hit hardest
The analysis by the Company Chemists’ Association, which represents large pharmacy operators such as Boots, found 37 per cent of the GP and pharmacy closures have been in the 20 per cent most deprived areas.
It blamed a lack of funding for the closures and fears some towns and villages could soon become ‘cold spots’ – where access to primary care is ‘significantly reduced or inadequate’.
It said primary care is ‘essential to both accessing the NHS but also the health and economic prosperity of the population’.
The warning comes as the Government is preparing to publish a Primary Care Recovery Plan.
It is expected to detail how ministers will tackle record low levels of public satisfaction with GP surgeries, which have left patients struggling to secure face-to-face appointments.
It is likely involve a greater role for pharmacists, with Britons encouraged to seek help from their local chemist for minor ailments.
Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the Company Chemists’ Association, said: ‘The Government is sleepwalking into a disaster within primary care, and we could soon see primary care cold spots emerge in different parts of England.
‘Unfortunately, the communities with the greatest need could see access to primary care services diminish the most which will only worsen health inequalities.
‘The CCA has been warning about permanent closures of pharmacies for some time.
‘The sector is underfunded by more than £67,000 per pharmacy annually, money which could be invested in frontline staff to provide patient care.
‘This is a wake-up call to the Government – primary care desperately needs investment.
‘We’re calling for a fully-funded Pharmacy First scheme to bring investment into the sector and to ensure patients with minor ailments can be seen by their pharmacist first – freeing up GP time to see those patients who absolutely need to see their GP.’
Dennis Reed, from Silver Voices, which campaigns for the elderly, said he is ‘very worried’ about the closures, which people often raise with him as a cause of concern.
He added: ‘Primary care should be a community service that is convenient and easy for people to access close to home, when they need it.
‘Closing pharmacies and GP surgeries means they can only access medical support if they have access to transport or technology for remote consultations.
‘This particularly impacts on the elderly, who may not have access to a car, have found their bus routes cut and cannot afford a taxi.
‘For some, it may mean they choose not to visit their doctor when they are sick or are unable to pick up the medicine that they need.’
Separate figures last week showed the number of patients per fully-qualified GP has hit an all-time high, with some family doctors now caring for almost 3,000 people in the worst-served areas.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said many elderly people are dependent on pharmacies for their health as they can struggle to access a GP.
She added : ‘Pharmacies are important local resources, especially for older people living with health conditions, who often come to depend on them for advice and support with their medications, not just prescriptions.
The analysis by the Company Chemists’ Association, which represents large pharmacy operators such as Boots, found 37 per cent of the closures have been in the 20 per cent most deprived areas
‘Pharmacies are usually a lot more accessible than GP practices and with our ageing population we need more of them, not less, so the Government must think hard and quickly about how to arrest the apparent decline in their numbers, particularly in places where they are needed the most.’
Taiwo Owatemi, a Labour MP and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Pharmacy, described the situation as ‘dire’.
She added: ‘Too frequently we view our pharmacies as just being the shop where we pick up our medicines.
‘Pharmacies can and must be commissioned to do so much more.
‘Over 30.5 million appointments could be shifted away from general practice every year by trusting patients to know when they need care.
‘Pharmacies should be the first port of call for any minor illnesses.
‘Pharmacists have the skills already; they just want the opportunity to put them into practice.
‘Yet, this can only happen if the Government is prepared to step up to the plate and make those long-term commitments to the sector that will keep it alive for future generations.’
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘Closing a GP practice will be one of the saddest and most difficult decisions a GP partner can make, particularly if the reason for it is unmanageable workload or not being able to fill vacancies, and this is likely to be the case for community pharmacies, as well.
‘The sense of disappointment at not being able to fulfil our commitments to our patients runs deep.
‘Workload and workforce pressures are affecting GP surgeries and community pharmacies across the country but can have a greater impact in deprived areas where patients often have more complex health needs, and GPs have more patients per doctor.
‘The loss of a GP practice or pharmacy in these areas will clearly have a stark impact on the community.
‘GPs and our teams want to deliver safe, timely and appropriate care to our patients wherever they live, but decades of underfunding and poor workforce planning have left general practice in crisis.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the number of doctors in general practice has grown in the past few years when also including trainees.
They added: ‘Community pharmacies play a vital role in our healthcare system and we back them with £2.6billion a year.
‘On top of this, we have announced a further £100million investment in the sector to help support services.
‘We are carefully monitoring access to pharmaceutical services – currently 80 per cent of people can access a pharmacy within a 20 minute walk and there remains twice as many pharmacies in deprived areas compared to less deprived areas.
‘We are improving access to general practice with almost 90,000 more appointments every working day of 2022 compared to the previous year.’
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