Community pharmacies must be involved in the government's preparations for a second wave of coronavirus this winter, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) has said.

The RPS was responding to a new report, published by the Academy for Medical Sciences, which warns that the country must begin plans now for a second spike.

The report suggests that the country should prioritise protecting itself from the ‘worst effects’ of flu by getting ‘people at risk, and health and care workers safely vaccinated’, in order to save lives and reduce the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed.

In response, Sandra Gidley, President of the RPS, said: ‘If the Government is to achieve its ambition for the ‘biggest flu vaccine programme in history’, it must involve pharmacies across Great Britain in delivering it.’

‘Support with testing’

The report also raised concerns over the possibility that excess respiratory deaths caused by the flu, on top of additional Covid-19 cases, will overwhelm the NHS.

It said that ‘generalised increase in respiratory infections over the winter could also rapidly overwhelm test and trace capacity’, which would make it hard for the Government to know how many people are carrying Covid-19.

Ms Gidley said that pharmacies have the potential to ‘support the rollout of antibody testing to establish what proportion of the population has been infected with the virus’.

She said: ‘Whether it’s flu vaccinations, dealing with local lockdowns or planning for a potential second wave, the sooner we get decisions from government and the NHS, the more time pharmacy teams and the health service will have to prepare.

‘We also agree with the report’s recommendation that health and care staff will need continued support for their own health and wellbeing. If the enormous mental and physical strain of the past few months is repeated ahead of this winter, the health service will be on its knees.’

‘Co-circulation of viruses’

The report estimates that the UK will see around 120,000 new coronavirus deaths in a second wave of infections this winter. There have been 44,830 official Covid-19 deaths in the UK to date.

Professor Dame Anne Johnson FMedSci, Vice President (International) of the Academy of Medical Sciences’ said that the UK must prepare for co-circulation of both coronavirus and the flu during the winter season.

She said: ‘We need to minimise coronavirus and flu transmission everywhere, and especially in hospitals and care homes.’

‘Calls for change’

The report follows calls from pharmacy bodies for urgent change to be made to the flu vaccination programme this winter including more flexibility in where and how the flu vaccine is administered to increase the number of people vaccinated and reduce hospital admissions.

At an NPA conference held yesterday (13 July), health secretary Matt Hancock announced that this year would be ‘the biggest flu vaccination programme in history’.

He said: ‘We’re currently planning in detail for winter and we’re expecting high demand, and pharmacies will play a critical role.’

The Department of Health has not confirmed a widespread flu immunisation programme. However, last month it sent a letter to community pharmacies and general practices in England to say the government considerations for expanding the eligibility criteria for NHS-funded flu vaccinations were ‘underway’.

Currently, those who qualify for the NHS-funded flu vaccine include all children between two to 10 years old, those in clinically at-risk groups between the ages of six months and 65 years, pregnant women, people living in care homes, and all health and social care staff.

Last month, the Pharmacist reported that pharmaceutical manufacturers may not be able to meet all increased demand for flu vaccines this year, during an unprecedented demand for the vaccine worldwide.