I must have been having a brief lapse in consciousness last week when I went into Boots to buy a bottle of shampoo. That is, the ongoing impasse between Mary Harney and the Irish Pharmacists’ Union must have momentarily slipped my mind, because otherwise I certainly wouldn’t have risked the queues of seething, disgruntled and, most importantly, SICK people who lined the aisles. The tension was palpable. These were people ready for a fight – or, for some of them, a good cry. If Mary Harney had strolled in the door to pick up a lipstick at that moment in time, they would have – to use a wonderful Waterford expression – ‘cleaved the head off of her’.

The oppressive atmosphere got too much for me and I fled, abandoning my bottle of shampoo to one of the shelves. And on my way out the door, my heart went out to the Boots pharmacist who was listening sympathetically to a tirade of complaints from an elderly customer. Later that day I passed up Barronstrand Street and the queue had moved to outside the shop: the store had been

temporarily closed for business, so overwhelmed were the staff with the demand for prescriptions.

It was like a scene from the Third World, ill people who needed to be at home in bed standing in line for over an hour for their medicine. And not only that. Surely forcing people to queue openly on the street for their medication is an invasion of their privacy – by declaring to anyone who sees them that they hold a medical card (not that it’s something anyone should feel the need to hide, but it is that person’s business and no-one else’s).

We’re hearing similar horror stories every day from all over the country, with people searching for a dispensing chemist and queuing for ages, only to be turned away empty-handed and told to come back the following day. Earlier this week I met a pensioner who had gotten the bus into town specifically to pick up medication for her housebound husband. She would normally attend her local pharmacy for the prescription but, given the fees row between the HSE and the Irish Pharmacy Union, she had to travel further afield. After a lengthy wait in the queue, she was told the medication would not be available for a number of days and was advised that the Tramore branch of Boots could fill the prescription in a shorter period of time. So she had to turn on her heels and catch another bus to Tramore for the pills.

Another man I spoke to, a cancer sufferer, was advised the same thing, but when he arrived in the Tramore chemist he was nonetheless told to come back in four days for his vital medication. And while the HSE and Pharmacists’ Union continue to launch spin and counter-spin at each other, chaos looms over the health and wellbeing of thousands of sick people.

This HSE contingency plan is a bit of a misnomer, to say the least. People are getting desperate. And when people get desperate, they will turn to desperate means – and turn on each other. The initial reaction of most people was to blame the Government for the chaotic state of affairs. Now, the tide does seem to be turning, with people recognising that the current level of payments to pharmacists is unsustainable – the overall cost to the government for drugs and medicines was €1.745 billion last year and, of this, Health Minister Mary Harney is arguing that over €600m went to wholesalers and pharmacists for bringing the medication from the factory to the patient. Harney is starting to take on the guise of a latter-day Thatcher in her unequivocal stance, last week saying she won’t be changing her mind on the new legislation and adding that there was no further room for negotiation about money. And ordinary people, as always, are caught in the cross-fire.

But the plain fact of the matter is that this dispute did not blow up overnight. It has been brewing for years and it is a shame on the ‘powers that be’ that the situation has been allowed to deteriorate to this. Are the warring factions to continue casting blame until an innocent casualty forces the bitter dispute to a fatal resolution?