On the face of it, this looks like good news for locums. And the stats would back that up, with just 24% of locum respondents reporting that they were dissatisfied with their pay compared to 40% the previous year.
With community pharmacy’s workforce crisis leaving countless vacancies across the sector, it’s no wonder that locums are now able to command higher pay as employers scramble to find pharmacists to cover shifts.
But factor in the rising cost of living, inflation, and years of stagnating rates on year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and it’s understandable that many locums think they should be paid more.
While just under one in five respondents to the Salary Survey 2022 (18%) said they thought they should receive £35 per hour, a further 19% said £40 and 15% said £45. Meanwhile, 7% of respondents said they thought they should be paid more than £50 an hour.
And, after all, why shouldn’t locums be paid well for what they do – a highly skilled job that requires years of training and comes with an enormous amount of responsibility?
However, this will be a bitter pill for community pharmacy employers to swallow, some of whom have already indicated that rising locum rates are unsustainable under the current – woefully inadequate – funding model.
Again, this viewpoint is understandable as contractors grapple with increased pressures while watching their funding shrink to the tune of millions of pounds a year as a result of the five-year contract.
Naturally, there will always be a tension between those fighting their employer for higher pay and business owners who have their bottom lines to think about. We’ve already seen the result of that tension in what’s occasionally become an ugly debate between locums and employers, with accusations of foul play on both sides.
Back in the summer, when it seemed that the rate debate had reached fever pitch, I wrote that the only way to break the impasse was for the government to finally stump up enough funding for pharmacies to pay fair rates that they could afford.
Fast forward six months and many community pharmacies are still in an incredibly precarious financial position, with sector leaders warning that mass pharmacy closures will surely follow unless fair funding is achieved.
But one crucial thing has changed. Last month saw three major pharmacy chains – Lloydspharmacy, Asda and Tesco – announce consolidation plans, no doubt as a direct result of government’s failure to put its hand in its pocket.
Major employers including Boots, Day Lewis and Well Pharmacy have already rushed to flag job opportunities to anyone affected by closures. This led me to wonder how that could affect the locum rate market, should those closures come to pass.
And some locum pharmacists I’ve spoken to have been speculating about the same thing – recognising that they could quickly lose negotiating power if supply starts to outstrip demand.
But although we may see rates dip slightly, I suspect we won’t be going back to the bad old days when the average hourly pay was as low as £20.50.
After all that pharmacists have been through over the past few years, there’s a feeling now that enough is enough. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, locums have shown willing to hold out for higher rates, and I doubt that will change overnight.
However, even though I doubt locums will suddenly be lowballed into accepting unacceptably low pay en masse, I do wonder whether we'll continue to see average rates climbing at such a rate.
Still, if the past couple of years have shown us one thing, it’s that anything could happen. With so much up in the air, it’s very much a case of wait and see.