The government has reactivated pharmacy powers to swap doses of clarithromycin due to ‘significant ongoing disruption’ to supplies.

Pharmacies had been warning they were having to turn patients away and ask for new prescriptions from GPs amid increased demand for the antibiotic due to rising rates of whooping cough.

Dr Leyla Hannbeck, the chief executive of the Independent Pharmacies Association, had called at the weekend for the rule change to allow pharmacists to make substitutions for alternative antibiotics so that children could start treatment immediately.

‘We’ve seen one of the key antibiotics for treating whooping cough, clarithromycin, become unavailable in some areas,’ said Hannbeck. ‘We’re having to turn patients away and send them back to their GP to get their prescription changed,’ she said.

In response, the Department of Health and Social Care said it was not aware of any supply issues for antibiotics for whooping cough.

But a notification on the 22 May said Ministers have authorised the (DHSC) to reactivate two serious shortage protocols for clarithromycin 125mg/5ml and 250mg/5ml oral suspension.

Pharmacists are able to substitute half doses of a higher strength or issue tablets instead without a GP having to change the prescription.

Under the SSP:

– for every 5ml of clarithromycin 125mg/5ml oral suspension, 2.5ml of clarithromycin 250mg/5ml oral suspension must be supplied

– for every 5ml of clarithromycin 250mg/5ml oral suspension, one clarithromycin 250mg tablet must be supplied

The powers will remain in place until 21 June, the notification said.

Earlier this month, the UK Health Security Agency reported that five babies had died from whooping cough in the first three months of this year.

In March there were 1,319 confirmed cases of pertussis up from 918 in February and 556 in January with highest rates in babies under the age of three.

It comes after repeated warnings from public health officials about falling uptake of maternal pertussis vaccination.

The latest rise comes after a post-pandemic period of low levels of spread with the last peak year being 2016.

Uptake in pregnant women has dropped from over 70% in September 2017 to around 58% in September 2023.

UKHSA said the calculated maternal vaccine effectiveness against infant death has been updated to include the most recent deaths and remains very high at around 92%.

There has also been a small drop in the number of children who have completed the 6-in-1 vaccination which includes pertussis from 96.3% in March 2014 to 92.9% by September 2023, figures show.

A version of this article was first published by our sister title Pulse