New Zealand’s aggressive approach to the Covid-19 pandemic has been praised around the world. At the time of publication, the country had recorded just over 1,500 confirmed cases and only 21 deaths. The Pharmacist spoke to Ian McMichael, president of the Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand (PSNZ) to find out how pharmacies experienced the pandemic on the frontline.

Similar to how things began in the UK, pharmacies in New Zealand experienced a mass panic from the public at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. ‘A lot of pharmacies closed their doors to promote social distancing and keep their staff safe,’ Mr McMichael explained. ‘We also struggled to get hold of PPE, much like the rest of the world.’

'We’ve been on the frontline through this'

Like pharmacy in the UK, pharmacies in New Zealand have been ‘massively relied upon’ throughout the pandemic. ‘We’ve been on the frontline through this, we provided access to medicine and healthcare and support when doctors surgeries were closed,’ he said.

In response to the growing demand felt by pharmacies, the government quickly gave the pharmacy sector NZD 15 million - which is just under £7.5 million - at the start of the pandemic to help teams with the higher workload and additional effort teams were expected to deliver.

Community pharmacy not ‘properly supported'

However, many NZ pharmacists have reported that this funding was inadequate and would not compensate for the amount spent during the pandemic.

At a select committee meeting, CEO of the Pharmacy Guild of New Zealand, Andrew Gaudin, said that community pharmacy had not been ‘properly supported by the Ministry of Health and District Health Boards, whether that be sourcing the right personal protective equipment to keep our staff and our patients safe or ongoing financial support that recognises the cost pressures we are under.’

He added: ‘For community pharmacies to continue performing their vital role for patients, it is critical to ensure that the sector has ongoing stability and financial sustainability during these extraordinary times and into the future.’

Sector hopes to provide more

This lack of financing does not reflect general feeling towards pharmacy, Mr McMichael commented. The sector has been ‘especially valued’ throughout this pandemic, he said. ‘We are a highly valued aspect of healthcare in New Zealand - not that that comes out in the funding packages we’re given.'

Their frontline role during the pandemic may help PSNZ argue for more resource for pharmacies, so they can do more for their local populations.

‘The hope is that pharmacies will be able to offer more clinical services. By 2025, I’d like to see pharmacies administering all vaccinations, from six-week-old babies to end of life,’ Mr McMichael said.

Delivering unprecedented numbers of flu vaccine

This winter, the sector has experienced an upsurge in demand for flu vaccination. ‘We’ve been administering three times the number of flu vaccines we usually give out; the demand is so high,' said Mr McMichael.

A nationwide campaign has been running to encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated against seasonal flu.

The high demand for the vaccine is now causing some supply issues, he reports. ‘There were issues at the beginning, and I do think now the [government] is afraid it will run out of stock.’

Patient violence has not been an issue

Bad feeling and anger from patients about waiting times and queuing has not been such as problem in New Zealand as it has been in the UK. ‘I did hear of a lot of violence towards pharmacists in other countries, but I’ve not heard any major reports from here. The vast majority of people have been very accepting,’ he said.

‘Police have also been very supportive of us throughout this period,’ he added.

Long term benefits

One of the ‘great benefits’ of the pandemic, according to Mr McMichael, has been that it has forced New Zealand to the use of electronic prescriptions. ‘Before this New Zealand hadn’t embraced a lot of electronic prescribing at all. Then suddenly overnight, we had to embrace it, because we couldn't have bits of paper going from medical centres to pharmacies.’

Health disasters can bring about positive change, he comments. During a measles outbreak in New Zealand last year, pharmacists were allowed to administer MMR vaccines for the first time. Mr McMichael hopes a similar change will come about following the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Pharmacy is all about accessibility for vulnerable people. I believe that if given the chance, pharmacy can provide better and more accessible services to vulnerable people.’