Community pharmacists at 'breaking point' vote for industrial action
COMMUNITY pharmacists have overwhelmingly backed industrial action.
At a closed meeting on Monday evening, 98 per cent of contractors representing 418 pharmacies across Northern Ireland voted for action, saying there were "insurmountable funding pressures".
Fears were expressed over the safe and on-going supply of medicines as a result of a lack of investment and a chronic shortage of pharmacists and locums.
More than 123,000 people visit pharmacies in the north each day.
Health minister Robin Swann last night described the planned action as "regrettable and surprising" and urged the organisation representing contractors, Community Pharmacy NI, to "reconsider their plans".
"I am very aware of the challenges within community pharmacy, including the need for greater funding certainty," he said.
“My department has been working with Community Pharmacy NI on a programme of reform including new services, development of the pharmacy workforce, and updated arrangements for reimbursing community pharmacists for medicines dispensed.
“I want to assure patients that contingency measures will be developed to minimise the impact of any industrial action."
But Gerard Greene, chief executive of Community Pharmacy NI, said the pressures were not new and spoke of the vital role of pharmacy services in keeping patients "out of GP surgeries and hospitals".
"We have been warning the department for years of this growing crisis. A litany of unresolved issues stemming from sustained underfunding now means that community pharmacists have reached breaking point.
"The decision to take action is not one reached lightly and we regret that the refusal of the department to address this crisis has brought us to this, but our network is at the point where the safe delivery of crucial frontline services for patients could be compromised.
"Community pharmacists already play an enhanced role in transforming our health service but until the department engages in meaningful talks to stabilise community pharmacy funding and address the current issues, then it is only paying lip service."
Community pharmacy contractor Loretto McManus said morale in the sector is at an "all time low".
"Dispensing medicines is a role that is critical in maintaining the health of all the patients in our communities. It requires focus and attention to detail.
"When we have reached a point where we are now working excessive hours and the pharmacist's health and mental well-being is compromised due to the unrelenting pressures, then we have serious concerns for patient safety that need to be put right immediately.
"Expert reports on transforming our health service say we must enhance community services to keep people out of hospital. The refusal to properly resource and support services like community pharmacy is a total contradiction of this."