Pharmacies across England are continuing to lose vital team members to self-isolation after being told by NHS Test and Trace to quarantine -- despite new rules exempting healthcare workers.

Earlier this month (19 July), the Government announced that all frontline health and care staff — including pharmacy teams — who have been advised to self-isolate after close contact with someone who has tested positive, are now permitted to return to work under specific circumstances.

The exemption scheme was introduced to help alleviate staffing problems in the health service, but some pharmacies say they are yet to see the benefit.

Pharmacy groups and bodies have criticised the process by which pharmacy contractors can get staff back to work, labelling it 'disappointing' and ‘near enough impossible’ to operate.

Paul Antenen, operations manager and senior pharmacist at the 70-branch Kamsons Pharmacy group, told The Pharmacist that the group had lost key staff across many of his branches that he ‘has not been able to get back’.

‘The summer is always a stressful time for pharmacies; we are always low on staff and locums due to it being the summer holidays, but the fact we are losing staff to isolation too is adding even more pressure,’ he explained.

He said: ‘If you listen to the media, you would think the ‘pingdemic' has all been solved for health and social care staff because we have this exemption and staff can come back.

‘But it has been over two weeks since the scheme was launched, and no one seems to know how to implement it.’

The Government advises that exemptions from self-isolation ‘should be made on a case-by-case basis, and only after a risk assessment by the organisation’s management’.

‘This must be authorised by the organisation’s local director of infection prevention and control, the lead professional for health protection or the director of public health relevant to the organisation,’ the Government says.

However, from 16 August onwards all fully vaccinated adults and all under-18s will no longer have to self-isolate if they came into contact with somebody who tested positive for Covid-19.

But, Mr Antenen said that the authorisation process is currently unclear for pharmacy employers, and he said he feared it would remain that way until the change of policy in August.

'It’s proving near enough impossible to navigate this new scheme,’ he explained. ‘We are getting caught between having to get permission from the directors of public health and the NHS; no one seems to be clear on what we do.’

‘Still working on the process’

Mr Antenen told The Pharmacist that he continues to be passed around to different bodies whenever he tries to get a member of staff back to work.

‘When we contacted the NHS, they said they were still working on the process and couldn’t help.

‘A director of public health from one area emailed us to say they were no longer involved with the scheme and that I should contact our CCG.

‘Another director of public health got back to me to say they were still working on the process, but in the interim, I should email over the risk assessment for each employee so they can make a decision.

‘Another director of public health in the north published some guidance where you can make the decision yourself as an employer. It's very unclear and varies hugely from area to area,’ he said.

Mr Antenen also said that the speed at which the current system is working means that by the time you have ‘jumped through all the hoops’ to get your employee back, the 10-day isolation period is up.

‘Until we get to the 16th of August I fear we will just continue losing staff,’ he added.

‘Even now I’ve still not heard back’

Similarly, Pete Horrocks, superintendent pharmacist of the 70-branch Knights Pharmacy group, said that the scheme was not working for the community pharmacy sector.

He said that he initially welcomed the move, but on ‘closer inspection’ of the guidance he noticed several problems.

‘I had to ask locally how we get in touch with a director of public health because it’s not clear,’ he said. ‘Even now I’ve still not heard back, so I’m a bit stuck.’

He added: ‘I cannot imagine directors of public health will want to be dealing with lots of pharmacies contacting them on an individual basis, which is why I think the process should be a set of rules as opposed to a risk assessment.’

Earlier this week, Pulse reported that local GP leaders plan to continue with self-isolation requirements for practice staff, despite the new Government guidance saying healthcare staff can continue working if identified as a Covid contact.

However, unlike GPs, pharmacy teams are not able to work remotely, and the exemption scheme is vital to keeping pharmacy businesses open.

‘Community pharmacy deals with what is presented with it on that day, and it's necessary that staff are in for that. GPs can manage the number of appointments they have in a day; they can also work from home more easily, so the work is very different,’ Mr Horrocks suggested.

PSNC: Disappointed in application of the new rules

Gordon Hockey, PSNC’s director of operations and support, told The Pharmacist that the body has already called on the Government to make changes to the scheme so it is easier to operate.

’PSNC has been disappointed in the application of the new self-isolation rules to community pharmacy staff,’ he said.

‘Despite our push for the introduction of a standard assessment tool to make the process easier to implement, the policy remains that Directors of Public Health must formally authorise each individual's return to work unless an alternative sign-off process has been agreed locally.

‘Our sector is not alone in its frustration about the application of these rules for key workers, so the expected change in Government policy from 16th August cannot come soon enough.’

AIMp: Proper checks have not been carried out

Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), said: ‘The policy has been written without proper checks having been carried out to confirm all the processes stated can be followed, particularly in respect of the requirement to contact regional infection control officers.’

‘This has all been very disappointing as a policy was needed, but despite this one being claimed as a solution, it was merely a risk assessment process that was impossibly self-limiting, as no sensible employer would take the risk of declaring staff exempt based on the protocol.

‘This is another example of things being “done to us”, rather than being “done for us”.’