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Pharmacies arestruggling to cope with soaring costs while providing frontline care during Covid-19 crisis

Ireland’s 1,900 community pharmacies are struggling to cope with soaring costs and falling revenues. Research released recently by the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) reveals the extent of the severe cost increases being borne by pharmacies providing front-line care during the crisis.

The IPU Covid-19 Business Survey revealed that the vast majority of pharmacies have been hit by significant extra costs to enable them to remain open and to provide safe care. The costs associated with physical distancing are among the most significant, with over two-thirds (68 per cent) installing new counter screens to protect patients and staff, and significant costs highlighted for the implementation of other measures, including signage and security pods. 

When personal protection equipment (PPE) is included, the average cost per pharmacy is €2,700, with some pharmacies spending up to €10,000. 

Day-to-day operating costs have also dramatically increased for pharmacies, said the union. The survey reveals staff costs, as well as additional security, delivery and sanitisation costs, are increasing by an average of €5,000 per month, equating to almost €10 million per month on average across the sector.

The increase in costs comes at a time when retail sales in pharmacies have dropped dramatically due to the restrictions, with falls on average of 36 per cent across the sector, and three-quarters of pharmacies anticipate having to make additional investments to reconfigure their premises or otherwise prepare for when the current restrictions on movement are lifted.

This is putting considerable pressure on pharmacies, the majority of which are small, family-run businesses. The survey showed that one-in-five pharmacies have laid off staff, while another two-in-five (38 per cent) will be forced to so in the next two-to-three months.

A quarter of pharmacies have reached their credit limit with medicine wholesalers, impacting their ability to purchase further supplies, while many more have had to defer payments to creditors, restructure loans, or expand overdraft facilities, said the IPU. Worryingly, 30 per cent of respondents indicated that they had difficulty in ordering key medicines for patients due to reaching their credit limit.

Speaking about the stark figures, IPU Secretary General Mr Darragh O’Loughlin said: “Pharmacists are at the frontline of our healthcare system. As the various Covid-19 restrictions have been implemented, pharmacies have remained open to provide their communities with an uninterrupted supply of medicines, service and advice, but this has come at an unsustainable cost to many.

“Pharmacists are fully committed and none of them want to see staff laid-off, but the reality is that there is little choice unless the situation changes. These pressures also could cause closures of some pharmacies — a situation that everyone wishes to avoid.”

In conclusion, Mr O’Loughlin said that while pharmacies continue to operate in extremely difficult circumstances, they will make every effort to remain open. Minister for Health Simon Harris has said he is looking at ways to support pharmacies in their work. However, no support has yet been provided, leading Mr O’Loughlin to warn that if the additional costs continue at the levels currently experienced and urgent Government support is not forthcoming, some pharmacies will have to dramatically curtail their opening hours or close completely.