Much rhubarb, rhubarb being chuntered as the government considers cutting the amount of subsidy going to pharmacies. We have, of course, the usual suspects in the form of those currently getting the subsidies complaining that they might not do so in the future:
More than 1,600 pharmacies in rural areas face closure because they will not benefit from a promised government financial package, leaked documents indicate.
Ministers are expected to unveil a large cut in the annual subsidy for community chemists in the next few days.
The cuts have proved highly controversial, with a record 2.2 million people – one in 30 of the population of Britain – signing a petition against them.
This is the essential problem with political subsidies to favoured groups. The problem coming in two forms. That the government is considering spending £170 million less on these subsidies is a very minor matter for almost all of us. Two or three quid a year out of our total tax bill is not something most of us will go to the barricades for. But the recipients of this cash are intensely interested in seeing it continue to pour in. This concentrated interest and dispersed disinterest is the political explanation for why such favouritism continues.
The other flavour of this problem is that where market forces are operating then these changes occur gradually. Technology changes say, as technology always does. Perhaps Uber has made getting to a chemist cheaper, perhaps Deliveroo means that the housebound don't need to get to a chemist. The specific changes aren't the point - but that there always are changes is. And in markets the marginal supplier fades away and the marginal suppliers fade away gradually over time. This is how we adapt to technological change. But when we've these politically favoured subsidies we must make a positive effort to change the system. This is of course harder - and also means that we've got to wait until it's a large problem before we do. Thus ensuring that the concentrated interest opposing change is larger.
All of which means that we do in fact have to continually revisit such schemes in the light of other changes in the economy and technology. We must, if you like, careen the ship of state more than just occasionally.
And the specific change here doesn't seem to onerous:
“Pharmacies that are a mile or more from another pharmacy will be automatically eligible” for average payments worth between £8,500 and £19,500 each, it says.
The scheme is likely to cost £12 million a year, rising to £27 million in 2017-18. Chemists which do not meet the criteria will not qualify for the grant money.
Society is rather more mobile than it was in the past. And now we're asking that people travel no more than a mile to their state supported pharmacist - this is the implication of only one pharmacist per mile getting the subsidy - to gain access to their state subsidised drugs? In order to save some perhaps £140 million, £150 million a year?
It really doesn't sound like the sort of onerous condition that one in thirty of the population should be protesting about, does it? Rather more just a little necessary scraping off of the odd barnacle really.