GP practices are informally directing patients to community pharmacies, to help them prioritise the delivery of Covid booster vaccinations, instead of making a formal referral to Community Pharmacy Consultation Service (CPCS), according to NHS England.

In a primary care bulletin, sent to staff last night (20 December), NHSE requested that GPs make referrals to community pharmacies for minor illnesses through the CPCS, so patients are guaranteed access to the care they need.

It said: ‘Informal referrals into community pharmacy may result in some patients not accessing the care they need and prevents pharmacy teams from identifying patients that need to directly speak to the pharmacist at this very busy time.’

‘This is a very busy time for both community pharmacy and general practice, and we recognise that everyone is trying to do their very best for patients,’ it added.

The news comes as the Government last weekend brought back the target date for offering all over-18s a Covid booster jab between now and 31 December.

Alastair Buxton, director of NHS Services at PSNC told The Pharmacist today (21 December) that the increase in informal referrals to pharmacy was ‘regrettable’ but ‘not surprising’.

‘PSNC would like to see the CPCS made available to anyone who needs it, with or without a referral, and we are continuing to make this case to the NHS,’ he added.

Thorrun Govind, RPS English Pharmacy Board Chair, acknowledged that both pharmacy teams and general practice are under ‘a lot of pressure’ to deliver the Covid booster programme, but reminded GP practices that the CPCS referral pathway can help relieve some of these pressures.

She said: ‘With continued pressures across the health service, it is more important than ever that community pharmacy and general practice can work together to help patients see the right clinician at the right time.’

She added: ‘Streamlining CPCS referral pathways to make it easier for patients and staff was a key finding of our workshop with the RCGP, BMA and pharmacy teams.’

The workshop, which was held earlier this year (October), also found that the role of community pharmacists needs to be expanded to include the supply of certain prescription-only medicines for the CPCS to be successful.

General practices in England were encouraged to sign up to the CPCS before 1 December if they want to access a £250m winter access fund.

NHSE&I published a plan for improving patient access to appointments in October, which said that patients’ ability to access primary care ‘is often not as good as it should be’. The winter funding package for general practice aims to ‘increase the proportion of appointments delivered face to face.

According to NHSE&I, around 10% of online GP consultations could potentially be referred to pharmacies via the CPCS.

An audit conducted by PSNC, published in May, revealed that pharmacies across England are providing around 1.1 million consultations every week without remuneration because patients were not formally referred through CPCS.