The managing director of pharmacy chain Rowlands has criticised the government’s handling of the flu vaccination service as the community pharmacy sector prepares to take on more responsibility this winter.

Nigel Swift said that the last-minute changes to the service will cause confusion for patients and disrupt the provision of patient services.

And he warned that ahead of the imminent launch of Pharmacy First in England, the government needed to ‘stop treating the sector as a Cinderella service’.

In a statement issued today, Mr Swift drew attention to the last-minute changes to the flu vaccination service issued by NHS England (NHSE) over the last month.

Although pharmacies had been planning for the usual September start date since last winter, in August this year NHSE said that the flu vaccination service would instead begin in October 2023, to coincide with Covid vaccinations.

Following opposition from the sector, NHSE conceded that pharmacies could be paid for jabs given in September where patients had booked appointments.

But last week it announced that both the flu and Covid vaccination services would begin from 11 September 2023.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that the change was a 'precautionary measure following the identification of a new COVID-19 variant'.

Mr Swift said: ‘Pharmacy advised an earlier start, but NHSE chose delay instead and has now U-turned creating problems that could so easily have been avoided.

He added: ‘A key lesson from the Covid pandemic was preparedness: so why was NHSE not prepared for this year’s flu season?’

And he warned that demands from NHSE to ‘do it tomorrow’ demonstrate ‘a lack of respect for, or understanding of, community pharmacy’.

He added: ‘It is worrying that ministers and NHSE officials appear not to understand the logistics involved in delivering successfully a flu vaccination programme through community pharmacy.

‘NHSE has known for months that this year’s flu season is going to be tough, so why on earth this last minute shambles?’

While he said that he was confident that ‘pharmacy will rise to the challenge’, Mr Swift highlighted the disruption to pharmacy colleagues due to the time needed to prepare for the service and book patients in for their appointments.

And he warned that the last-minute change would create confusion for patients and disrupt the provision of other patient services.

In particular, the managing director of Rowlands Pharmacy, which is part of the Numark group, raised concerns about the government’s communication with community pharmacies ahead of the launch of Pharmacy First in England, which will see the sector delivering more clinical services to patients.

Mr Swift said that if health ministers in England want to make greater use of community pharmacy, ‘that requires a partnership approach planning together service delivery within achievable timescales’.

‘Simply dumping last minute demands on an already overstretched pharmacy sector is impracticable and frankly unacceptable,’ he said.

Mr Swift added that if the government in England was ‘truly committed’ to a ‘Pharmacy First’ approach, ‘then it needs to stop treating the sector as a Cinderella service’.

‘An ad-hoc “we demand today – you do it tomorrow” approach makes no sense if we are to deliver consistent patient care,’ he said.

Pharmacy First, a PGD-based national minor ailments service in England, is set to launch before the end of 2023, the government announced earlier this year.

It will allow pharmacists to supply prescription-only medicines including antibiotics and antivirals where clinically appropriate, to treat seven common health conditions without the need for patients to visit a GP.

NHSE has been approached for its response to Mr Swift's comments.