The number of phone calls to pharmacies more than tripled between February and March 2020, while home deliveries of medication to vulnerable patients more than doubled, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry heard this week.

Speaking on behalf of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) at the inquiry hearing this week, legal representative Deirdre Domingo, said members had reported ‘a significant increase’ in the number of prescriptions dispensed from February to March 2020.

She added: ‘Phone calls to pharmacies more than tripled during this period. Home deliveries of medication to vulnerable patients more than doubled, and many pharmacies experienced long queues outside their doors.’

Pharmacists and their teams ‘worked tirelessly’ to maintain service provision and medicines supply, including spending ‘long hours sourcing medicines’ as many became difficult to source and expensive, Ms Domingo said.

‘The increased demand on community pharmacy during the pandemic had a significant impact on pharmacists and their teams, resulting in stress, fatigue and mental health issues for many NPA members,’ she added.

And she asked the Covid inquiry to consider ‘whether there was sufficient investment by government in the infrastructure needed to integrate community pharmacy into the broader health system and to support effective co-operation across the health service’.

She said: ‘Community pharmacy entered the pandemic facing financial and workforce crises, due to long-term underinvestment in the network. These issues presented significant challenges for community pharmacy in responding to the pandemic and increased the difficulties in providing services to patients and maintaining staffing levels.

‘Even though the pandemic clearly showed that pharmacies are an essential part of health and social care, real-term funding cuts have continued, and the independent community pharmacy sector finds itself in a worse situation than at the outset of the pandemic with pharmacies closing at the rate of approximately eight per week.’

Also speaking on behalf of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), Ms Domingo said that both organisations were concerned about ‘the repeated and systemic difference in treatments between pharmacists who provided NHS-contracted services compared with healthcare workers directly employed by the NHS’.

‘Despite their crucial role providing care throughout the pandemic, the pharmacy profession, and particularly community pharmacy, was often an afterthought in government planning, guidance and communications, and this had a hugely detrimental impact on their morale and wellbeing,’ she added.

She raised concerns about ‘the resilience of pharmacy services in the event of a future pandemic or health emergency’, highlighting closures, wellbeing, workforce and capacity issues.

In addition, she said that ‘the pandemic exposed the international complexity of the medicines supply chain’, with ‘medicines shortages within fragile supply chains’ becoming ‘increasingly common’.

RPS president Claire Anderson commented on the inquiry: ‘Pharmacy teams were central to supporting patient care during the pandemic, providing a lifeline for the public and maintaining vital access to medicines.

‘Pharmacy teams showed tremendous dedication in extraordinary circumstances, often at great personal cost.’

And she said that ‘with growing demand on the health service, rising numbers of medicines shortages, and ongoing workforce pressures’, there were ‘clear lessons which must be learned so we can help prepare for the future’.

Also following the inquiry session, NPA chief executive Paul Rees said that pharmacies had played ‘a vital and heroic role during the pandemic’.

‘Undoubtedly, they helped save many lives and should be very proud of their actions,’ he said.

But he added that pharmacy pressures had worsened to a ‘full-scale funding crisis’ following the pandemic, ‘which has forced hundreds of pharmacies to close and pushed many more to the brink’.

‘They are a vital part of our national resilience against future pandemics which we are told are highly likely to hit us again in the future. We need a new contract, proper funding and an end of closures to make sure this vital national resource is still in existence when the next pandemic comes around,’ Mr Rees added.

The Covid inquiry was set up to examine the UK’s response to and the impact of the crisis, and learn lessons to shape preparations for future pandemics.