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Pharmacists lose battle to overturn government cuts to community pharmacy

But ruling establishes legal principle to consider impact of health policies on most vulnerable

Caroline White

Monday, 22 May 2017

Pharmacists have lost their battle to overturn the government’s decision to impose far reaching cuts on community pharmacy services in England, following a High Court ruling last week. 

But the judge heavily criticised the government’s approach. And the ruling means that, in future, ministers, will be obliged to pay more attention to the impact of health policies on deprived communities served by pharmacies and other care providers, says the National Pharmacy Association (NPA).

The NPA mounted a legal challenge on the grounds that cuts to the community pharmacy budget were unlawful because the Department of Health had failed to consider properly the likely impact on the poorest in society.

The hearings were held in March this year, with the verdict published at the end of last week.

Mr Justice Collins predicted hardship in deprived areas as a result of the cuts and said that the criticism of the Department of Health’s “less than satisfactory approach” was justified. 

He dismissed the government’s argument that the legal obligation to tackle health inequalities is a lesser duty than the public sector equality duty, which deals with discrimination.

The judgement also makes it clear that the cuts were prompted by the Treasury’s need to save money, not by healthcare considerations. It states that incorrect financial assumptions were included in a letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Prime Minister in August 2016 – correspondence which cleared the way for the cuts to be approved at the highest level.

Justice Collins also pointed to the “real risk” of putting more pressure on GPs as a result of the cuts. 

The judgment places on the legal record the importance of pharmacies’ role in primary care, beyond dispensing. 

Commenting on the verdict, NPA chairman Ian Strachan said: “The judge said the decision to make cuts was lawful, not that it was wise. On the contrary, he comprehensively debunked the risible idea that the cuts are for the good of patients.”

He continued: “Overall, this is a compelling judgment that recognises the important role of community pharmacy in primary care, which some ministers and officials have sought to diminish.”

He said the Court proceedings had exposed a “disturbing lack of understanding at the very heart of government about the role which community pharmacy plays in the NHS”.

He added that an important legal principle had been established, “namely that the health secretary must now have serious regard to the duty to reduce health inequalities when making decisions about the NHS. This judgement sets important standards in terms of our sector and far beyond".

He called on the next government to “seize this opportunity to change course,” and to “enter into constructive discussions about a positive way forward for the sector, patients, and the NHS". 

Chair of RPS England, Sandra Gidley, agreed. “The government is not making the most of what community pharmacy has to offer. Without exception, reports on community pharmacy highlight the huge potential for improving care of patients with long-term conditions and supporting public health,” she insisted. 

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