Concerns have been raised over the future of struggling pharmacies in County Durham. 

Councillors were given an insight into the struggles many pharmacists encounter today, as they take on more responsibilities to help ease pressures on GPs. 

Geraint Morris, of Community Pharmacy North-East Central, told a Durham County Council meeting that the Pharmacy First scheme, designed to free up GP appointments, has helped patients. 

“The new service has opened the door to pharmacies to be a one-stop shop for several common conditions, and you can leave with the treatment you need rather than being told to go to your GP. 

“We’ve been able to make it a much better experience for the patients and much more rewarding for the pharmacists as well.”

But there are also challenges. “We’re doing 20 per cent more work for the same income from five years ago,” Mr Morris warned. “You will have seen the number of closures and changes in ownership, and that’s just a measure of the crisis that's in the market.”

This means many pharmacists in deprived locations are particularly affected. 

Mr Morris explained: “Communities are screaming out for access in the most deprived locations. They’re used to there always being a pharmacy, however, there isn’t now because they can’t maintain the viability in this current market.

“I’m incredibly proud of my colleagues working well into the night to make sure that the patients they serve get the medicines they need. Pharmacists are going beyond the call of duty to make this work.”

There were 118 pharmacies in County Durham as of February 2024 compared to 124 in October 2022. 

The extra workload has also led to increased demand, which some pharmacies are struggling to handle. 

Cllr Lucy Hovvels, of Trimdon and Thornley ward, said: “In my community, the pharmacist is providing more services but has faced more pressures since Covid. We are not able to get a doctor's appointment, so we put pressure and burden on the pharmacists. I’ve seen how some have gone into liquidation.”

Thursday marked the first anniversary of a government announcement that patients will be able to obtain prescription medicines and oral contraception directly from pharmacies under an expanded blueprint to ease the pressure on GPs’ appointments.

Treatments for seven common conditions including earache, sore throat, and urinary tract infections are available without seeing a doctor under plans announced by Rishi Sunak. The Prime Minister said the measures would help end the “all-too stressful wait” for appointments by freeing up 15 million slots at doctors’ surgeries over the next two years.

“We will end the 8am rush and expand the services offered by pharmacies, meaning patients can get their medication quickly and easily,” he said. 

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But concerns remain that more pharmacies will close unless the Government provides more funding to the sector.

Mr Morris told the meeting: “We’re asking for support to raise the issue to the government, so people can understand the precipice we’re on right now - it’s really challenging.”

Cllr Kevin Earley added: “We need to do everything we can to protect what we’ve got and lobby for more resources, pharmacies are only going to have to do more and more.”