Nitin Lakhani, is superintendent pharmacist at Jaysons Pharmacy, which has branches in Wollaton, Nottinghamshire and in Long Eaton, Derbyshire. He also works at Well Spring Surgery, in Nottingham, as a clinical pharmacist.

When we first started hearing about coronavirus, we thought it might not be too bad -- but as the message started to sink in, we realised that was not the case.

All the way from the initial announcements, to new operating procedures, new ways of working, new regulations, paperwork, memos, the isolation of staff -- there has been this roll on effect, and it’s just the pace at which everything is going.

It all started gradually, but the situation has picked up speed very, very quickly.

The same thing has happened further down the chain, in that patients started to panic and say: ‘hang on there’s something wrong here’. The volumes started to pick up around prescription ordering and patients making preparations.

We’ve had the surgeries stopping non-essential services and changing their appointments to telephone only, and NHS 111 started to get overloaded.

It seems the years of campaign around ‘go to your pharmacy first’ have finally started to pay off and we’re seeing that come through. It took corona to aid integration!

Staffing arrangements

As the pace of the situation increased, we started to make decisions on what non-essential tasks in the pharmacy could be stopped. This included some filing, outsourcing of annual site maintenance, certain services, such as blood pressure and atrial fibrillation screening, and any health promotion campaigns we had planned.

Thank goodness the government decided to postpone the national clinical audit, Customer Surveys and Pharmacy Quality Services, and other scheduled tasks.

We’ve been doing risk assessments for all the services we offer, including home visits and face-to-face consultations, and asking ourselves if we were prepared for having 30 per cent or 50 per cent of our staff down.

One of our risk assessments looked at whether our staff themselves are vulnerable. We had two delivery drivers aged in their 70s, and we agreed it was in their best interests not to continue with the work at present.

One of our pharmacists also developed a cough. It later turned out to be tonsillitis and cleared up with penicillin -- but he had to have time off to self-isolate.

Because we specialise in more clinical work, with some services requiring specific accreditation, we have done continuity planning over the years.

We have a pool of pharmacists that we’ve trained to deliver these specialised services that we can pull on especially in such eventualities. Similarly, with our delivery drivers, we’ve organised the staffing in such a way that if one is on holiday or off sick, then the consequences won’t be so bad for our patients.

So, we already had those arrangements in place, but there have been the odd days where I’ve needed to rearrange my days at the surgery and come back to the pharmacy to help out.

Our dispensary and counter staff have also been fantastic -- coming in to work extra hours and moving between branches as the need arises.

Buddy-up arrangements

In the branches, we’ve restricted the number of people coming in at any given time. On the floor, we’ve put paper mats two metres apart for patients to stand on, and some arrows to indicate the direction of customer flow, to avoid people mingling with others and breaching social distancing.

To give staff a breather, to catch up and make things safe, we’re closing each branch for around 30 minutes every day. At our Wollaton branch, we’ve already buddied-up with the Boots down the road -- so while we’re closed for a break, we send patients to them, and while they’re closed for their break, vice versa.

At Long Eaton, we haven’t had the need for a buddy-up as such because there are 10 pharmacies in close proximity. But as the pharmacy lead for Nottingham City South Primary Care Network, I’m setting up a WhatsApp group for all the pharmacies in our group to support each other. One of the pharmacists I work alongside at the surgery gave me the idea -- social media tends to be more informal and more frequently seen than emails.

We’re very fortunate in both areas that all pharmacists operate in a very fair and ethical manner, and that is a nice way to work. We’re not directing patients to another pharmacy for any financial interest and we’re not there to pull each other’s business. We’re all in this profession to help and look after the patient, working long hours and often putting ourselves at risk. It's a caring profession.

This is an evolving situation and we’re facing huge challenges at the moment, but we are a family company and we’re sticking to our values.

So, for our staff -- whether it’s anxiety, family problems, a change in circumstances because of the schools closing -- we are standing by them, and equally, they are standing by us.

The same goes to our patients. They are like our extended families. We would do everything possible to look after them and keep them healthy and safe.