Pharmacy bodies have issued a warning to Government over discrepancies with the NHS Test and Trace service that risk closing pharmacies down and disrupting medicine supply.  

In a letter to public health minister Jo Churchill, the NPA, PSNC and others said that some contract tracers are classifying pharmacies as retail rather than health settings, and this is leading them to apply different rules for pharmacies than those applied to GP practices.  

This means there have already been several incidents where entire community pharmacy teams have been told to self-isolate following a single positive case within the pharmacy, leaving pharmacies facing a potential closure for up to two weeks, the bodies said.

The bodies pointed to the current guidance from Public Health England and NHS England, which states that with the appropriate use of PPE and other measures to mitigate the spread of infection, ‘pharmacy teams do not necessarily need to self-isolate’.

The letter said: ‘We are concerned that if this continues, with the added pressure of pharmacy staff self-isolating due to their exposure to Covid-19 in the general population, we will soon have a situation where people will be unable to access their medicines because of widespread temporary (two-week) pharmacy closures.

‘Other critical services, such as the community pharmacy NHS flu vaccination service, which has already seen more than a million people vaccinated by pharmacists this year, would also suffer.’

The letter was co-signed by the chief executives of PSNC, the NPA, the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), and the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA).

Further complications

It comes after PSNC recommended key actions for contractors on Test and Trace, following increasing reports that pharmacies are experiencing issues with the service.

PSNC said that as well as contract tracers not taking current national advice on PPE into account, there had been further complications around access to testing for pharmacies.

This has included some contractors facing difficulty registering as employers of essential workers, and asymptomatic staff who are asked to self-isolate not being able to get tested to check if they are negative so they can return to work more quickly, PSNC said.

‘This is all impacting on the continuity of service provision and therefore reducing patient access to essential medicines,’ the body added.  

‘While decisions must be taken in the public interest to minimise the risk of Covid-19 spreading, it currently appears that community pharmacies are being treated differently from other healthcare settings and the importance of continuity of service is not being recognised sufficiently.’

‘Parity for pharmacy’

PSNC has advised contractors that if a staff member tests positive and the pharmacy is not satisfied with the decision made by a contract tracer, they should escalate the case to the PHE local health protection team and ask for mitigations in place at the pharmacy to be taken into account, as is the case for other healthcare settings.

PSNC also said that contractors should involve their NHS England regional team or local office, and if these approaches are not successful then ‘there may need to be regular testing of pharmacy staff to ensure all do not have to self-isolate when one tests positive’.  

Gordon Hockey, PSNC’s director of operations and support, said: ‘As the Covid-19 outbreak continues it is inevitable that community pharmacy contractors will temporarily lose staff members when they are exposed to the virus and need to follow self-isolation rules.

‘However, contractors are increasingly reporting to us that the NHS Test and Trace service is causing additional staffing pressures by suggesting that whole teams must self-isolate’.

He added: ‘Pharmacy teams will struggle to continue to maintain vital services for patients if NHS Test and Trace does not take into account the Covid-safe measures, including the use of PPE, that have been put in place to help to prevent transmission between co-workers.

‘PSNC is aware that in other healthcare establishments the individual circumstances of the case are considered and is seeking parity for community pharmacies.’