Only 8% of requests for support from the NHS Volunteer Responders programme have come from community pharmacy to date, according to figures provided by the Royal Voluntary Service.

The programme was launched in early April and recruited volunteers via the GoodSAM app to support the NHS and care providers with a variety of tasks, including collecting medication and shopping for people who were self-isolating or shielding.

Under the national pandemic delivery service, launched on 10 April, pharmacy teams were required to signpost shielded patients to either an NHS volunteer or a locally-organised volunteer service, where they did not have anyone else to collect their prescription.

A spokesperson for the Royal Voluntary Service told the Pharmacist that NHS volunteer responders had completed 530,000 tasks for vulnerable people during the pandemic, with requests from community pharmacies accounting for 8% of the referrals made for support.

The spokesperson added that ‘more people could benefit’ from the programme and urged pharmacists to make it part of their ‘everyday conversations and consultations’ with patients.

Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at the Pharmaceutical Negotiating Services Committee (PSNC), said: ‘As well as the NHS Volunteer Responders scheme, many local initiatives have also been set up. This, coupled with the sector's concerns around the use of non-DBS checked volunteers to deliver medicines to vulnerable people, is likely to have informed pharmacy contractors' decisions on whether to utilise the GoodSam app.’

Use of volunteers

Community pharmacies raised concerns over the use of volunteers to deliver medicines when the national service was first introduced, and many have chosen to use local arrangements instead.

Dorset contractor, Mike Hewitson, told the Pharmacist he had upped the capacity of his pharmacy's own delivery service instead of using volunteers from the NHS programme.

He said: ‘It’s cost us a fortune, but it's what we had to do to keep our patients safe.’

He added that most patients turned down the opportunity to have volunteers deliver their medicine, because they ‘wanted to have their medicines delivered by people they knew and trusted’.

Reena Barai, owner of SG Barai Pharmacy in Sutton, Surrey, also chose not to use volunteers.

She told the Pharmacist: 'To give a bag of medication to a complete stranger and send them off to deliver it to some of my most vulnerable patients would go against every professional standard I have, and everything I’ve ever worked towards.

‘I understand we’re in unprecedented times, but we’ve never been allowed to just give anyone a bag of medication.’

The PSNC also voiced concerns about the lack of DBS checks for volunteers, with chief executive Simon Dukes commenting at a press conference last month: ‘Initially, our concern was that the service was designed to utilise volunteers even when the suitability of that volunteer couldn't be assessed, that concerned us and wasn’t acceptable.’

However, he later noted that when and where the scheme had been used ‘it seems to have served the patient well.’

A spokesperson for the PSNC also told the Pharmacist today (28 July) that it hadn’t received any complaints from pharmacists who had used volunteers to deliver medicines.

End of national service

The pandemic delivery service is due to end on 31 July, as shielding is eased and pharmacies are no longer required to arrange delivery of medications to shielded patients.

However, the NHS Volunteer Responders programme will remain active after 31 July.

This comes after the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced its plans to ease shielding advice from 6 July.From 1 August, guidance will be eased even further, with the2.2 million people on the shielding list in England no longer being advised to shield – if virus infection rates continue to fall.

From August, the DHSC saidshielding people can go back to work if they cannot work from home and their workplace is ‘Covid secure’, in line with government guidance. Adhering to ‘strict social distancing measures’, people who are shielding can also visit shops and places of worship, while continuing to remain home ‘as much as possible’.

People on the list will also retain access to priority supermarket delivery slots and NHS volunteer and local council support.

Last month, the government announced that pharmacy teams can request support from NHS volunteers who signed up to help England’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.