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Boots CEO apologises after claiming primary care ‘disappeared’ during pandemic

by Isabel Shaw
5 July 2021

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Pharmacy giant Boots has apologised after its CEO Sebastian James said that primary care had ‘more or less disappeared’ during the pandemic.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast yesterday morning (4 July) Mr James thanked his staff for their services during the pandemic at a time when the rest of primary care had ‘disappeared’, he said.

‘I think my staff has been incredible and I just want to take a moment to thank all of them for really stepping forward at a time when the rest of primary care had really, more or less, disappeared.

‘I think the Boots team did a really, really good job at managing that,’ he said.

However, Mr James has apologised after health bodies and staff alike hit out on social media in response to the CEO’s comments.

‘Please forgive me if I chose the wrong words at the moment to describe this,’ he said.

‘I and everyone at Boots have the utmost respect and gratitude for all primary care workers including GPs – they are the backbone of primary care and I did not mean to suggest otherwise.

‘I was referring to the fact that many locations had no choice but to close during the pandemic and in those situations we were happy to step in and help. This was really about thanking our teams and certainly not about diminishing the role of GPs,’ he added.

Responding to backlash from primary care staff on Twitter, the Institute for General Practice Management said: ‘This is disingenuous and misleading. Incredibly disappointing to see this from what are supposed to be colleagues of ours. A retraction and apology is required.’

This comes as Boots’ parent company announced last week (1 July) that Boots UK saw a 3.7% rise in UK pharmacy sales between March and May 2021.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said that Mr James’ comments were ‘unfair’ and ‘undermine the work of all primary care workers’.

‘Since March 2020, GPs in England have delivered over 173 million face to face apps [appointments]. Thanks need to be given to all frontline staff & healthcare workers for their efforts throughout this pandemic,’ the body said.

Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) also responded on Twitter and said: ‘GPs, their teams & PC [primacy care] colleagues have worked incredibly hard under huge pressure throughout the pandemic delivering vital patient care & services alongside 75% of the vaccination programme.

‘Seb James’ comments are unfair & insulting- he should set the record straight.’

The statement is the latest in a series of claims suggesting that primary care had shut its doors to patients over the course of the pandemic.

In May, NHSE delivered what the BMA described as a ‘tone deaf’ and ‘badly judged’ letter to practices, urging them to offer face-to-face appointments to all patients who ‘prefer’ one and to keep receptions open for walk-ins.

Only two weeks earlier, the BMA had said that the false narrative that general practice is not open to patients is ‘extremely damaging’ at a time when practice managers and their teams were ‘reaching breaking point’.

Meanwhile, the latest GP appointment figures show that practices in England carried out 31.5 million appointments in April, with well over half (54.8%) of patients seen face to face.

A version of this story first appeared on our sister title, The Pharmacist.