Nat Mitchell, pharmacist and director of JWW Allisons Chemist in Cockermouth, says vaccination services are one of his favourite aspects of the job - so it’s been frustrating to be sidelined from the Covid programme.

‘I can’t wait until I’m back here getting my Covid jab from you’

This was what we heard repeatedly from patients as we vaccinated them in their thousands against flu from our temporary location at a hotel, three doors away from our pharmacy last year. We couldn’t wait either, as we were keen to play a part in helping to bring our community out of the extremely difficult and at times tragic year that we faced and are still facing.

Our pharmacy has a special place in the hearts and minds of our community, having been here for generations and having literally ‘been there’ during two devastating floods that the town has faced in just over 10 years. We are used to our community looking to us for strength and guidance during tough times and during 2020 it was no different. We set up a Covid safe environment for our patients as early as February last year and worked 12-hour shifts, as well as putting another delivery van on the road in order to make sure that medication was one less thing for them to worry about.

So, when it became clear that a number of vaccines were likely to be approved for Covid-19, expectation levels were elevated in both our patients and ourselves.

Vaccination services are one the favourite aspects of my job. For a number of years, we have run popular flu services and what - up until last year - was a rapidly growing travel clinic, with a reputation for its service levels and accessibility. Running the travel clinic has developed my skills and confidence when it comes to dealing with a variety of different vaccines and the techniques required for their preparation and administration, alongside advice tailored to each vaccine. 

'Overlooked and disappointed'

We expressed an interest in providing the Covid vaccination service to our local NHS team, outlining our plans for running a service including information such as staffing, proposed patient flow with special regard for social distancing, cold chain processes, potential capacity and so on. This was via a site designation process, which all sites will have completed to some degree.

We treated our flu service as a dry run for a potential Covid service, and I imagine we were one of the few providers from either general practice or community pharmacy to base themselves in alternative premises for a sustained period, in order to protect the integrity of both the flu service and the day-to-day work. 

The reviews we received from patients on our NHS site were wonderful and fully vindicated the decision to relocate the service. Such were the reviews that I committed to taking on the premises if we were commissioned to administer Covid vaccines. We were offered the use of the whole ground floor and had two very experienced pharmacist colleagues lined up to assist with the service. In addition to this we have had countless offers of assistance from doctors, nurses and volunteer groups, who were desperate to be a part of what is a pretty amazing thing.

We understood that initially, when the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the only one approved, that the local PCN site was probably the most appropriate venue – and that having two sites in town could cause confusion and increase the potential for wastage.

However, we did feel that when the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was approved that our application would be given the serious consideration it warranted - as reaching the targets being set is a monumental challenge for a single provider. And even if that target is met, then what is the cost to regular services, when the burden of vaccination could be shared? And we are yet to see how juggling second doses alongside others receiving their first dose from one premises will go.

I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t admit that being overlooked has disappointed us on a personal level. We put a lot into our vaccination services and know that we would offer a great service to our patients and that is frustrating. But this is not about us, this is about our patients, and they clearly still want and fully expect us to be involved in the provision of the service.

As disappointed as we are, we continue to support the service by providing advice and encouragement to patients who are due to get their vaccination. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we are able to do more than just this.