At a closed meeting in Belfast on Monday night (February 24), an overwhelming 98% of community pharmacy contractors present – 95 contractors representing 418 pharmacies – voted in favour of industrial action.
In a statement released yesterday (February 25), Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland (CPNI) said its members had decided to act because they had “reached breaking point”.
Commenting that the situation for community pharmacy in Northern Ireland has now reached an “end game” stage, CPNI added that “pharmacists have major concerns about how to maintain the safe and ongoing supply of medicines as a result of serious underfunding and a workforce crisis in the sector due to a shortage of pharmacists and locums”.
Speaking to C+D today (February 26) CPNI CEO Gerard Greene said: “We have reached a crisis point because of a perfect storm of workload, workforce and funding difficulties.” Conditions are now such that “teams within pharmacies are under such unrelenting pressure and stretched so thinly that there is concern [about them being] able to maintain the safe provision of services,” he added.
It has not yet been decided what form the industrial action will take or when it will begin, with CPNI explaining that this will “be formalised in the coming weeks”.
New health minister Robin Swann – in post since last month – said yesterday that “the announcement of proposed industrial action is regrettable and surprising,” adding that he was “very aware of the challenges within community pharmacy, including the need for greater funding certainty.”
“A litany of unresolved issues”
CPNI also criticised the Department of Health in Northern Ireland (DoH) for its approach to community pharmacy in the country. Mr Greene said yesterday (February 25) that the representative body had “been warning the Department [of Health] for years of this growing crisis”
Referencing “a litany of unresolved issues stemming from sustained underfunding” – CPNI believes the sector to be underfunded by around £20 million a year – Mr Green also criticised “the refusal of the Department [of Health] to address this crisis”.
Speaking to C+D today, Mr Greene added that if DoH had taken sufficient action at an earlier stage “we would not be in the situation we are – this is a culmination of 10 years of insufficiency in terms of funding.” There is, he said, “a feeling that community pharmacy’s difficulties and very real problems have not been taken with the same degree of seriousness [as those of] other aspects of health service”.
Mr Swann said the DoH had been “working with CPNI on a programme of reform including new services, development of the pharmacy workforce, and updated arrangements for reimbursing community pharmacists for medicines dispensed.”
Commenting on the potential impact of industrial action, Mr Swann said he wanted to “assure patients that contingency measures will be developed to minimise the impact of any industrial action.”
“I would urge CPNI to reconsider its plans and work with me to develop a sustainable way forward,” he added.
Mr Greene said that “nobody wants to see industrial action…it is a last resort as a health professional”. However, while commenting that the current level of funding is “totally and clearly insufficient”, he also expressed hope that the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the appointment of a new health minister could signal a fresh start.
“Now that we have a minister in post who has the authority to intervene, I think everybody is looking to [him],” he said. CPNI has a meeting scheduled with Mr Swann at the end of March – arranged prior to Monday’s vote in favour of industrial action.