By Sobha Sharma Kandel, superintendent pharmacist, Neem Tree Pharmacy

During the first wave of Covid-19, pharmacies dealt with panic-stricken patients as well as staff, medicine shortages of even basic products like paracetamol, and difficulty getting hold of PPE. Patients were ordering their repeat medications even when not due, and we had to pay a higher cost to obtain medication from different wholesalers to keep up with demand.

After GPs closed their doors, patients had nowhere to turn to apart from the pharmacy, as we were so easily accessible. Our admin work doubled and dispensing volume too.

At this point, pharmacy was in a crisis. We, as a profession, demanded emergency funding injections, immediate help with cashflow, PPE equipment and funding for other safety measures, as well as better communication and more support from NHSE.

Britain now faces a potentially deadlier second wave of Covid-19 in the coming months, as research suggests that the virus is more likely to survive longer in colder and darker environments and to spread in the winter season, due to people spending time indoors.

There is also a higher risk with the coinciding flu season, which means that some vulnerable and immunocompromised patients can suffer from serious complications if they catch both viruses. The risk of this happening could be reduced if the Government takes action immediately. With relatively low numbers of Covid-19 cases at the moment, this is a critical window of opportunity to prepare for the winter.  

‘Flu shortages’

I believe pharmacy should be an integral part of the Government’s planning for a second wave. Starting with the flu vaccination programme and Covid-19 testing, pharmacies can help to deliver these services efficiently if funded appropriately. However, for all this to be provided safely, staff must have plentiful supplies of PPE and rapid access to tests themselves.

The last few weeks we have seen how shambolic the Covid-19 testing system has been, with schools starting back and a huge demand for tests meaning most people could not get tested – including some of our staff. This system needs to be overhauled so it is readily accessible especially for key workers – otherwise the health service will be on the brink of collapse.

Meanwhile, with the flu vaccination programme, even though we are all geared up to provide this service, there has been a nationwide issue with obtaining actual stock of flu injections from suppliers. Due to the shortage of supply, NHS has advised us to prioritise patients aged over 65 only at the moment. This is an issue not only for pharmacy, but also for GP practices.

‘Soldiered on’

Pharmacy has shown as a profession how resiliently we coped with the first peak of the pandemic. How we soldiered on despite the increased and unprecedented pressure we were put under.  During the first wave, there was little guidance initially. To prepare ourselves to be Covid safe, we installed protective screens and purchased extra PPE for our staff. For the sake of business continuity planning, we took on extra staff to cover sickness absences.

But pharmacists may not be in a position to meet the challenge of a second wave of Covid-19 if the Government does not provide essential support and funding to the sector.

Pharmacies, especially independents, are at the heart of the community. They are an essential part of the NHS – but they are also businesses. It is illogical and absolutely unreasonable that they are expected to bear the expenses of providing health services for the state during a pandemic themselves. We want the community pharmacy financial support advance payment loan, made to the sector during the pandemic, to be written off. We did get some funding for installing screens and can now order free PPE, but it was all too little and too late.

It would also make sense to keep the funding for the community pharmacy delivery service, as that enabled us to do home deliveries for at risk and shielding patients. This was a very essential service we provided during the pandemic for our most vulnerable patients. We would also welcome a return to the flexible working hours to enable us to cope.

‘Crippled by cost of Covid-19’

The reality is that many community pharmacies nationally are on the brink of closing down, having suffered from years of underfunding from the Government. This is not sustainable, especially now we are crippled by the financial cost of Covid-19.

Speaking on LBC radio on 5 September, Matt Hancock said that he planned to ‘drive money towards pharmacy’ from a growing NHS budget, on the condition that community pharmacies provide ‘more NHS services’. However, it is unclear which services the health secretary was referring to and how the sector’s funding package will change to incentivise pharmacies to provide them. It is a dire situation that needs rectifying immediately if pharmacy services are to be sustained. Let us see if the Government put their money where their mouth is.

Pharmacies need to be funded properly and be provided with the necessary support to carry on providing essential health services to the public, especially during the pandemic. A proper plan needs to be made by the Government to enable us to maintain services in the event of second wave. The absence of funding and support would mean that many pharmacy services will not be maintained. If this happens, communities will lose an essential health service.