Pharmacy staff are feeling ‘abandoned on the frontline,’ as the government stops providing personal protective equipment (PPE) for pharmacy teams, the equipment they require to protect themselves from Covid-19.

In the most up to date SOP guidance, Public Health England announced that it would not continue to replenish community pharmacy’s stocks of PPE. Instead, teams are advised to only use PPE when necessary, and in the ‘unlikely event’ that they need more PPE, to purchase more from wholesalers.

Pharmacies have reported running out of PPE supplies quickly, and say that wholesalers do not stock the PPE kits that pharmacy teams require.

‘We ran out of stock provided by public health after a week,’ pharmacy contractor Graham Phillips said, ‘and then found that the wholesalers we were turned to by the government had no PPE kits in stock. We felt totally abandoned.’

Although it is possible to find ‘bits’ of PPE on pharmacy wholesaler websites, this takes huge amounts of time to source – a resource that pharmacy teams do not have -- Mr Phillips explained.

‘If you look around and spend hours and hours on wholesaler websites, you will find the odd mask here and pair of gloves there, but obviously all the searching comes at a cost, our time.’

Another pharmacist said he had turned to ‘other’ sources of PPE as he was not able to order from pharmacy wholesalers.

‘I can get some now from other places, but only at extortionate prices. The places I’m getting my PPE from seem to be taking advantage of the situation and massively overcharging us -- but what else are we to do, we’re desperate to protect ourselves.’

He added: ‘Considering it's the busiest time in pharmacy ever; this should really all be sorted for us. We shouldn’t have to waste our time scouring the internet from PPE -- time that could, and should, be looking after patients.’

Is PPE needed?

The SOP guidance says that there are ‘very few’ occasions when pharmacy staff should need to wear PPE, due to the fact that ‘PPE is only required for close patient contact, within 2m.’

Mr Phillips however, disagrees with this claim. Government lacks an ‘understanding of how pharmacy works’ if they believe staff can avoid coming into close contact with patients, he says.

The compact layout of many community pharmacies means that it’s almost impossible to achieve social distancing, and, without PPE, pharmacy teams are potentially being exposed to the virus on a daily basis.

Ash Soni, a community pharmacist in London told the BBC today that he thinks his chances of contracting the virus are very high, ‘It’s not if, it’s when, because I think we are so exposed that the likelihood is that we will all get it.’

‘That’s why we need PPE now, not in a week, not the week after, but today,’ the pharmacist added. 

Pharmacy bodies demand action

The Pharmacy Defence Association (PDA) recognised this issue and recently wrote a letter to health secretary Matt Hancock, demanding that community pharmacies receive more PPE.

‘Community Pharmacists are seeing more patients than before, not less, as GP practices have restricted patient access. Give them the PPE they need to protect them, and to protect all their subsequent patients,’ the letter said.

Similarly, The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) has called on the UK Government and devolved Parliaments to take immediate action on the provision of PPE across all settings.

The body stressed that urgent updates to guidance on pharmacists' use of protective equipment are required immediately because people showing symptoms of Covid-19 are still going into pharmacies.

RPS President, Sandra Gidley, said some pharmacies in the UK have no PPE, while others already have access. ‘Adequate stock of PPE must be supplied to pharmacies across the UK, and to all other NHS settings.

‘No pharmacist in any setting should be left wondering what to do if the coughing patient in front of them has Covid. Current PPE guidance assumes no one with Covid symptoms is coming to pharmacies or are on a non-Covid hospital ward – this just isn’t the case. Guidance on PPE needs to change to reflect this real-world situation.

‘The Government and NHS have repeatedly tried to provide reassurance that adequate supplies of PPE are available to the pharmacy profession and that guidance is robust. This is not the reality experienced by our pharmacists across the community, general practice and hospitals across the UK. This needs to change and change now,’ she said.

This comes as the RPS called for extra protection from the police for pharmacy teams due to rising aggression from patients and the wider public.

Meanwhile, over 6,000 former pharmacists and pharmacy technicians are being granted temporary registration to enable them to return to work to assist pharmacies amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Two British healthcare staff have now died after contracting coronavirus.

What’s happening in your area? Contact Isabel at [email protected] with any information that would be useful for us to share with community pharmacy colleagues