Pharmacy representatives have presented evidence to the UK Covid Inquiry about the ‘frontline service’ provided by pharmacists during the Covid-19 pandemic and warned that many are now at risk of closure because of underfunding.

Speaking at the official inquiry, a representative of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) highlighted the important role of community pharmacies during the pandemic.  

Brian Stanton, an NPA lawyer, told the inquiry: ‘The UK’s community pharmacies run a frontline of efforts to limit the impact of Coronavirus and to keep people well and as well as handling a massive increase in demand for healthcare advice and medicines they also continue to provide urgent care and vital support to people with long term medical conditions.’

However, he warned, ‘there are now many at risk of closure due to underfunding’.

He urged the inquiry to ‘consider how resilience can be built into future plans’ when it decides its recommendations.

The NPA took part in Module 3 of the independent public inquiry which covers the impact of Covid-19 on healthcare systems across the UK. The inquiry was set up to examine the UK’s response to and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and learn lessons to shape preparations for future pandemics.

It is chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, a former court of appeal judge.

The inquiry heard a testimonial from an NPA member about the impact of the pandemic.

Mr Stanton said the account was ‘typical of the commitment, sacrifice and resilience of NPA members and the delivery of their essential services’.

He said throughout the pandemic, community pharmacies not only maintained the core service of the supply of medicines, but also increased the provision of expert medicines advice.

According to the NPA, 98 per cent of community pharmacies reported an increase in enquiries about serious health conditions during the pandemic.

The inquiry heard the testimonial of the co-owner of a single independent pharmacy, read by Mr Stanton.

The pharmacist said his biggest fear was ‘letting people down’.

‘When the pandemic hit it occurred to us that if one of the team because ill or got Covid there was the potential for the whole team to go down and that would mean closure leaving patients without medication, putting them in turmoil,’ he said.

As a solution, the pharmacist split the team in half, with his wife – also a pharmacist and co-owner of the pharmacy – leading one team and he the other.

He told how they separated during the working week, isolating at home or in a hotel.

‘At the end of the week when I was working I checked I was symptom-free before going home. Even then the family would go to a separate room and I would go straight to have a shower and put my clothes in a bag. Only then would I come down to the family. We’d spend a day together then we’d swap. We did that for 10 weeks,’ he said, adding: ‘In 23 years of pharmacy this has been the most challenging time of my career. It’s also been the most rewarding. We’ve not let our patients down, we’ve come through it.’

Mr Stanton told the inquiry that despite this central role in the delivery of NHS care, community pharmacy was often ‘overlooked in the pandemic’.

He added: ‘It was not given the support it needed including pharmacies initially having to source and fund their own PPE.’

He said pharmacy workers were not initially recognised as key workers to enable their children to attend school while they worked, which required intervention from the NPA to rectify.

He also highlighted issues with delays in the availability of Covid tests for pharmacy teams and community pharmacy initially being excluded from the Department for Health and Social Care scheme to pay £60,000 to the families of a health or social care worker who died of Covid-19 in the course of frontline work.

NPA chief executive, Mark Lyonette, said it is important that lessons are learned from the pandemic with regard to community pharmacies.

He added: ‘This is an historic opportunity to place on record the achievements of community pharmacy during the pandemic and to ensure that the inquiry’s recommendations are based in the practical realities faced by health workers such as our members.

‘It is very important that the community pharmacy story is told and that lessons are learned. We hope this process will result in recognition of the broad role that community pharmacy plays in health care and action that will better equip the health service to be resilient against, and responsive to, future public health crises.

‘As well as handling a massive increase in demand for advice and medicines during the pandemic, our members continued to provide urgent care, help for minor illnesses and supported people with long-term medical conditions, and supported victims of domestic abuse. They kept vulnerable people supplied with medicines and played a key part in Covid testing and the vaccination programme.’