Boots brought private health a little closer to the high street last week with the launch of a subscription-based on-demand service for customers suffering from depression and anxiety.

A press release supporting the move cites the current crisis in free mental healthcare provision in the NHS – and appears to link it with a claimed rise in in-store demand for psychiatric support – to explain why Boots is launching the paid-for service.

The retailer, owned by US pharmacy giant Walgreen, already offers a pay-as-you-go online doctor service for minor ailments, at £15 per virtual visit, and last autumn it unveiled an in-person version of that service at its 2,200-plus sites, in a move marketed as offering “immediate diagnosis, treatment and medication for the price of a Nando’s”.

The new depression and anxiety service costs £65 per month, a sum that covers GP consultations and medication but not, we understand, talking therapies – the latter will be available separately from Boots, along with mood and symptom checkers.

Clearly designed to target ‘time poor, cash rich’ clients with psychiatric symptoms that aren’t likely to require inpatient care, this expansion into mental health services by a commercial operator aligns well with various political initiatives introduced in recent months, all seemingly designed to bolster the role of retail pharmacies within the public sector.

In October health secretary Sajid Javid insisted that primary care networks used the NHS Community Pharmacist Consultation Service, overseen by the independent Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), and he also mooted the idea of a national version of the Pharmacy First marketing programme, currently being piloted by local CCGs across England.

Meanwhile, the PSNC has itself been lobbying for pharmacy representation on the NHS’ new Integrated Care Boards, and last September the All-Party Parliamentary Pharmacy Group launched an inquiry, supported by the PSNC, into the future of pharmacy in the wake of the pandemic, seeking views from the pharmacy sector on a range of issues, including “how pharmacy can be better integrated into NHS care pathways”.

But it’s unlikely any of these initiatives will have much of an impact on the provision of mental health services in the public sector, and neither will Boots’ latest ‘product offering’, despite the retailer’s chief pharmacist claiming that it will “[help] relieve pressure on… services already available through the NHS”.

The Lowdown has reported extensively in recent months on the extent of the crisis in mental health care, but it’s simply worth noting here that there are now 1.4m people on the waiting list for care in the sector, with an additional 8m who would benefit from care but do not meet current criteria. And also that mental health bed numbers fell from 23,208 in September 2011 to 18,493 in September 2021.

Last month the NHS Confederation and the Royal College of Psychiatrists jointly warned of a “second pandemic” of depression, anxiety, psychosis and eating disorders, with a 52 per cent rise in emergency referrals since early 2020. They claimed that 10m people in England are now predicted to need new or additional mental health support over the next five years, and called for an expansion of NHS estates for specialist mental health care, along with a major recruitment drive – one in ten consultant psychiatrist posts are currently unfilled.

While there is obviously a huge unaddressed demand for mental health services, that’s down to the pandemic and a decade of public sector underinvestment – not a lack of participation by US-owned retail chains. Which rather begs the question: does Boots’ latest initiative represent anything more than low-level fear-based marketing?

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