Government moves to protect community pharmacists

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The Independent Online

The Government issued watered down proposals to open up Britain's pharmacy market saying it wanted to preserve the community pharmacies' role in the provision of NHS services.

The Office of Fair Trading had proposed sweeping changes which would have allowed the major supermarket groups to open hundreds of pharmacies in their stores. The OFT said its plans would have led to increased competition, lower prices and longer opening hours though there were fears that up to 6,000 smaller chemists could have closed.

In proposing only a modest shake-up Patricia Hewitt, Trade and Industry Secretary, said the government needed to take account of the wider NHS policy objectives and the impact any changes could have on patients and services. She said: "Community pharmacies play a vital role, particularly in rural and poorer areas and we will do nothing to jeopardise their position. Pharmacists are trained clinicians, not simply shopkeepers and they will have an even greater role in the NHS in the future.

The OFT called the proposals a "missed opportunity" while supermarket groups expressed disappointment that the DTI had not gone further.

Boots, which has 1,300 pharmacies in the UK and accounts for 12 per cent of the market, said it would need to examine the detail of the proposals but said it was well-placed to support a greater role for pharmacies in the NHS's plans.

Tesco said: "We welcome the government's recognition of the need for change but perversely the detailed rules could introduce hurdles to greater deregulation."

The DTI said it wanted to boost patient choice through internet and mail order services though it didn't say how these services would be delivered. Other changes appeared intended to liberalise the market but may end up having limited impact. The government proposed making it easier for pharmacists to locate in large shopping developments, such as shopping centres, though they will have a duty to provide a full range of services to meet local needs. Given most shopping centres already have a chemist this may have negligible impact.

Pharmacists that are prepared to open for 100 hours a week will also find it easier to secure pharmacy licences though even major supermarket chemists are not open this long. The average Tesco pharmacy is open for around 75 hours a week and shortages of qualified staff will make it difficult to open for longer.

Brian Cotter, a spokesman for the liberal Democrats, said the DTI statement was "merely a reprieve for the community pharmacist and not the all out victory it may at first appear."