Thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, for choosing this Commencement matter and I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, for coming to the Chamber to discuss it.
Earlier this week, I met some pharmacy owners in my constituency in Kildare and I was quite shocked by what they told me about the major issues they are facing in terms of having pharmacists in their premises. Every pharmacy is legally required to have a qualified pharmacist on the premises for filling prescriptions and so forth. The main issue the pharmacy owners raised with me is the crazy bidding war that now takes place when they seek locum cover. Many pharmacy owners are forced to use a website called Clarity Locums to book a locum pharmacist. Last minute bookings through this site can see hourly rates rise to €150 per hour. One person I spoke to was paying €149 per hour.
It is so lucrative that many pharmacists are walking away from full-time jobs and working as locums. They see far greater financial outcomes from that.
This is absolutely unsustainable and these practices further inflate the crisis facing the sector. We need to see the Department intervening here. There are four different areas where I will suggest action but the Department must take concrete and targeted steps to support the industry. I know now of pharmacies that have been forced to reduce their opening hours because of a lack of available pharmacists or the sky-high hourly rates that must be paid. Pharmacies are an essential public service and so many people right around the country in our local communities rely on them. We must support that service.
We must see action by the Department to aid recruitment into the sector. It is my understanding that many non-EU pharmacists cannot work in Ireland because their pharmacy degrees are not recognised here. They need to study for a further year to 18 months in order to register as a pharmacist. I know the Minister of State is doing much excellent work in supporting Ukrainian refugees coming here and many of these are very highly qualified people in the area of health, pharmacy, medicine, etc. I honestly believe there should be a derogation for those who are qualified and come here.
It is possible to declare retail pharmacy as a critical skill shortage. I read a report that the UK Home Office did in March this year on speeding up the process of registering EU and non-EU pharmacists. It is something we must definitely do because the process here is very cumbersome. Retail pharmacies could also be allowed to sell non-prescription medication without the presence of a pharmacist. Otherwise we will see pharmacies closing early or not being open for bank holiday weekends or even ordinary weekends, as they are now.
In the longer term, we must have an increase in the number of Irish university places for the pharmacy sector. Currently, there are only 240 per year and we have been outsourcing pharmacy education to the UK and other areas. They are now having problems with recruitment as well. We must also have a new pathway for experienced pharmacy technicians to become fully qualified. That should be considered. There are a number of areas here and the issue crosses higher education and retail. That is the crux of the matter. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.