Pharmacist Thorrun Govind explores how community pharmacy has been standing up in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pharmacies have never been so busy. They say a week is a long time in politics. Well, try community pharmacy. With the increased number of services alongside dispensing activities, the added burden of Covid-19 pandemic poses a unique set of challenges to our sector.

Let me start off by saying this: I am so proud to be a healthcare professional, and of the exemplary professionalism currently being shown by my colleagues up and down the country. I am so proud of the entire profession. Across the country we have coped with a tonne of prescriptions; millions of people visiting our pharmacies with questions, and increased requests for delivery.

When you enter a healthcare profession you know that you risk getting ill. However, this is a whole new level.

It’s been the fear that someone suffering from the symptoms of coronavirus could walk in at any minute. It’s the worry about making your friends and family ill, and the consequences that could result. It’s now also restricting yourself from visiting elderly relatives due to the risk of infecting them.

This is different. The worry that your role could make a loved one ill is also balanced with the moral need to go and care for your patients. It’s a very hard balancing act, and pharmacists risk burning out if they do not recognise that this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Last night, we heard that community pharmacies will be one of the few remaining places open for the next three weeks. Pharmacies are a vital service, and the pace -- that many of my colleagues have described as Christmas and Easter rolled into one -- is set to continue.

This week has brought unprecedented changes to the sector. Never did I think I would be working in a pharmacy that limited access to the public. Instead, only three patients are allowed to enter at a time. Pharmacies up and down the country have implemented similar measures to protect their staff. Many have erected barriers to control where patients can stand in order to ensure that the 2m rule of social distancing is applied.

Community pharmacies have long been the hub of communities, where people will come for a chat and often linger. However, the focus this week has been getting patients in and out of the pharmacy as quickly as possible.

The mounting pile of prescriptions at every pharmacy tells another story. The GPhC has recognised that pharmacies may need to reduce their opening hours. Part of this is to cope with the sheer volume of work.

Many have been starting early, leaving late and reducing their opening hours, so medication can be dispensed and checked without distraction while they are closed to the public. There is so much activity: phone calls, ordering medication, deliveries and advising on queries. Many pharmacies have reduced the services they provide in order to protect staff from being in close proximity to patients.

For pharmacy delivery drivers, it’s been a hectic week of many miles, as deliveries mounted up and vulnerable patients requested medication. One pharmacy team I’ve heard of even had to purchase another van to deal with the sheer volume of requests. Pharmacy delivery drivers are often the forgotten part of the pharmacy team. As this week has shown, they are key team members helping the most vulnerable. Never did I think we would hear pharmacy staff begging patients to ask a friend or family member to pick up medications in order to reserve drivers for the most vulnerable.

Despite all their efforts, pharmacy teams have also been subject to abuse from the public. Colleagues across the country have reported increased comments from patients who do not understand the busy healthcare environment they are now entering. Patients are often queuing to enter the pharmacy as numbers inside are limited. Time also has to be taken for more frequent cleaning.

There is no way to sugarcoat this: those who are failing to adhere to social distancing in the pharmacy are putting pharmacy teams at risk. The biggest concern is pharmacies having to close due to pharmacists self-isolating, and how staffing levels might be affected as a result.

I do believe that the response across the whole pharmacy profession has been incredible. There have been some great examples. Hospital colleagues supporting community colleagues with deliveries. Pharmacy lecturers dropping in to support their past students. Staff members being supported by family members. As the weeks go on, this support will become even more important.

This is a profession that works together in the best interests of patients. This is a profession that mucks in to get the job done. This is pharmacy.