A pharmacist has called for more joint working with local GPs after facing increasing complaints from confused patients who are struggling to book an appointment for a Covid vaccination.

Sachin Patel, managing director at Lincoln Pharmacy in Tower Hamlets, told the Pharmacist that his patients fear larger sites and want to be vaccinated at the pharmacy, but think a GP site is their only option because they do not understand they can book via the national booking system.

He added that the problem has been exacerbated by his local surgery only signposting patients to GP-led vaccination sites – and expressed concern about the impact on local vaccine coverage.

‘We asked our GP surgery to add us as an option for patients to select [on its text invites] but they told us that they couldn’t because they have the Pfizer vaccine, and they need to use it up within that four-day period,’ Mr Patel said.

‘This reason to direct patients to GP-led sites makes sense, but realistically patients just aren’t going – and we need to vaccinate our patients,’ he added.

The Tower Hamlets GP Federation acknowledged the patient confusion and said it was ‘aware that communications with patients are not always keeping up with which sites are available’.

The spokesperson added that the Federation is working with Tower Hamlets council to set up a telephone helpline to advise patients on the options available to them, including local pharmacies.

‘Blocked phone lines’

Eligible patients can currently only book a vaccination with a pharmacy via the national Covid jab booking system, and only when they have received a letter inviting them to do so. The same system is used for the mass vaccination sites, while most local GP sites book in patients directly.

But Mr Patel told the Pharmacist that a lot of patients are coming into the pharmacy and saying ‘we’ve got a text from the surgery, why can I not book my vaccine in the Lincoln Pharmacy’.

‘It’s blocking up our phone lines; we’ve turned into a complaints centre,’ he said.

‘Everyone in our community knows us and people know we are accessible. A lot of people in our area don’t want to go to those GP-sites, they really want to come here.’

He added that the pharmacy is having to explain to concerned patients that they can still come to their pharmacy for the vaccination if they go on the national booking system.

London-wide issues

Lincoln Pharmacy is one of 200 pharmacy sites commissioned by NHS England so far and started vaccinating patients on 21 January. But despite having the capacity to deliver 200 vaccinations per day, Mr Patel said the pharmacy has been averaging between 30 and 60 so far.

The Pharmacist reported similar concerns from other London pharmacies earlier this week, who said they were also having to help elderly patients struggling with the national booking system.

A spokesperson for NHS England told the Pharmacist on Tuesday (26 January) that patients unable to access a pharmacy site ‘can wait for an invitation from their GP or local hospital’.

But Mr Patel warned that the patient confusion risks impacting vaccine coverage in his local area.

‘We are seeing first-hand that people don’t want to go and get vaccinated anywhere but here - they’re familiar with us, this is a big factor within the BAME community here and they are scared to go to the larger centres because of people raising bad experiences of large queues, waiting times, and being moved from one building to another,’ he said.

‘They can walk to us, see how we’re set up and they have heard how safe, efficient and friendly our environment is here and people don’t want to go anywhere else - it's frustrating we aren’t reaching the BAME community here, the group we really need to.’

He added that pharmacies and GPs ‘need to work in a joint way to make sure our area gets vaccinated’.

Telephone helpline

The spokesperson for Tower Hamlets GP Federation said: ‘More and more vaccination centres are coming on stream as supplies of vaccine increase but we are aware that communications with patients are not always keeping up with which sites are available.

'For example the national letter to patients points them to the mass vaccination site and pharmacies but does not include the local primary care sites which is unfortunate. This is causing confusion, with some patients receiving invitations to several sites while others are still waiting to hear.’

They added: ‘In Tower Hamlets we have recognised this, and Tower Hamlets GP Care Group, which is a federation of all the general practices in the Borough, is working with the local council, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, to set up a telephone helpline with bilingual staff which will advise patients about all the options available to them to get their vaccination.

‘This will include the primary care vaccination centres in Tower Hamlets, the local approved pharmacies and the mass vaccination centre at the Excel Centre in Newham. The new service will be promoted to the public upon launch which we are hoping will be as early as next week.’

Earlier this week in a primary care bulletin, NHS England asked community pharmacists and GPs to ‘continue to support each other’ during the Covid vaccination programme.