NHS pharmacy services under threat – warn unions

NHSTogether demonstration in November 2007 against NHS privatisation
NHSTogether demonstration in November 2007 against NHS privatisation

Unite is seeking an urgent meeting with Health Secretary, Andy Burnham ‘as NHS pharmacy services are threatened by a government decision’.

Burnham is being asked to reconsider the decision that has denied NHS pharmacists the fair pay deal which would address the profession’s NHS recruitment crisis.

Unite has expressed disbelief after the government said on Friday that it will not implement the recommendation of the independent NHS Pay Review Body (PRB) to give pharmacists the necessary recruitment and retention premium (RRP) to retain them in the NHS.

The union says that awarding a RRP would have staunched the recruitment crisis of pharmacists in the NHS, where pharmacist vacancies are currently running at 13 per cent.

Pharmacists in the private sector can earn at least £10,000 more a year than in the NHS.

Unite National Officer for Health, Karen Reay, said: ‘We are seeking an urgent meeting with Andy Burnham to ask him to review the decision not to implement the independent PRB decision.

‘This will make the pharmacy recruitment crisis in the NHS much worse.

‘Unite presented evidence to the PRB that 25 per cent of NHS trainee pharmacists never take up a permanent position with the NHS, as they are lured by the bigger salaries offered by the private sector.’

The NHS PRB stated that: ‘The lack of urgency in agreeing a solution to the shortage of pharmacists in the NHS carries substantial risks.

‘We therefore consider that action needs to be taken in the short-term to address the problem of recruitment and retention of pharmacists in the NHS, and that a national RRP is the appropriate mechanism.’

Unite research estimated that to award the RRP would cost approximately £12 million a year, yet in 2008 the NHS spent around £23.8 million on locums to plug the pharmacist gaps in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Reay added: ‘Not to implement the recommendations of the PRB clearly does not make economic or common sense.

‘Continuing with such high pharmacist vacancy levels will have a negative impact on services.

‘Unite is also very concerned that the independence of the PRB has, once again, been undermined by government.’

NHS pharmacists work in hospitals, primary care and mental health Trusts.

The NHS Pharmacy Establishment and Vacancy Survey in 2008 found there were 305 qualified pharmacy posts being filled by locums.

Based on an average rate of £40 an hour, this costs the NHS £457,500 a week (= 305 x 40 x 37.5) and £23.8 million a year.

NHS Pharmacy Establishment and Vacancy Survey in 2008, which is more reliable than the NHS Information Centre vacancy figures, found there was a 13 per cent vacancy rate for pharmacists overall.

The NHS Pay Review Body (PRB) said: ‘We recommend a short-term national RRP for pharmacists of £5,000 at the lowest point of AfC band 6, decreasing in stages to £500 at the sixth point of band 7.

‘This should be implemented from 1 October 2009, and remain in place for a fixed term of two and a half years until 31 March 2012.’

The NHSPRB also said that ‘We do not agree with the view of the Department of Health and the Health Departments for the Devolved Administrations that there must be clear and robust evidence of a recruitment and retention difficulty across all four countries in the UK.’

The Unite trade union’s health sector includes seven professional sections, one of which is the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists which represents NHS healthcare pharmacists.

Unison, the public sector union, has also criticised Government plans to ignore the NHS Pay Review Body’s recommendation for a UK-wide recruitment and retention premium for junior pharmacists, saying it will fuel shortages.

Mike Jackson, Senior National Officer for Health, said: ‘We understand that a government report, due out shortly, will recommend pharmacists stay on the shortage occupation list.

‘Twenty-two per cent of pharmacists’ posts are vacant across England and Wales, so surely a failure to act now will only fuel those shortages.

‘The premia recommended by the pay review body, of between £5,000 and £500 a year is a sensible way to plug the gap.

‘It takes five years to train a pharmacist and many are leaving the NHS.

‘We should not put the health service in a position where it has to take trained staff from overseas.

‘The decision to ignore the recommendation undermines the integrity of the independent review body system.

‘The government and public would be outraged if unions took industrial action over a PRB award. Why should the government get away with such cavalier action?

‘We believe this decision is fundamentally wrong and we want the government to make it clear that it does not set any precedence for future awards by the PRB.’