Pre and provisionally registered pharmacists have criticsed the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) after test centre slots for the upcoming exam filled up ‘within minutes’ of going live, leaving students with no choice but to travel hundreds of miles from their home.

The exam — which was initially postponed last April in response to Covid-19 — is currently rescheduled to take place in Pearson VUE centres across the UK for 17 and 18 March after months of delays.

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) sent an email to pre-reg and prov-reg pharmacists yesterday (25 February) to let them know they could now book a place for the registration assessment.

However, many candidates have reported not being able to book a place at a test centre near to where they live due to being at work when the email was sent.

Other candidates who had computer access at the time the email was sent out have said they also struggled to book exam slots as places filled up ‘within minutes’.

The GPhC said in a statement that capacity at the test centres has been reduced to ensure each is Covid secure, and this means that ‘unfortunately some people will have to travel longer distances than they may wish to’.

Glasgow to Cardiff

Sophie Laye — one of the many students who had difficulties booking her exam — told the Pharmacist she will have to travel from Glasgow to Cardiff to sit the test.

‘My exam is in the morning, so I cannot travel there on the day as it's over six and a half hours’ drive. I will have to stay the night before, another financial burden on top of the £182 exam application fee and cost of travel,' she said.

‘It is absurd that people should have to travel that far during a pandemic. But I guess I am one of the lucky ones as some people do not have a place booked anywhere at all.’

Meanwhile Nigel Fan, another exam candidate based in Glasgow, said he did not receive the email from the GPhC letting him know he could book an exam.

After calling both Pearson VUE and the GPhC he told the Pharmacist he was eventually offered two exam slots - both in different countries to where he currently was living and working.

‘The only spaces available are [on the] Isle of Man which is seven and a half hours’ travel, and also involves two-week quarantine on arrival, or Ireland,’ he said.

‘It truly is shocking how they expect us to commute long distances when the exam is at 8am.

He added: 'Furthermore, the risk of commuting to all these different areas when pharmacists are working with so many patients questions whether or not the GPhC has even considered patient safety at all during this nine month period they had to plan this exam.

Candidates ‘let down’

Hosam Yousef, a prov-reg pharmacist who will have to travel 183 miles to sit his exam, told the Pharmacist he felt ‘let down’ by the GPhC.

‘I also feel as though the needs of the candidates have not been considered and there has been a material failure to implement reasonable adjustments, given the circumstances,’ he said.

Mr Yousef is also concerned about breaking lockdown restrictions and what travelling hundreds of miles means for his patients’ safety.

‘I have to travel during a pandemic to another country, which, as a healthcare professional, is a blatant disregard of the ‘stay at home’ order that has been issued to the country,’ he said.

Annelise McDowall, who managed to book an exam in Newcastle, told the Pharmacist she found the booking experience 'traumatic’.

She said: ‘I got logged in and out every few minutes and it felt as if it was impossible. On top of that, I had been at work all day in the pharmacy and of course did not have an opportunity to check my email until I was home. So of course I was late to it and when booking it felt like we were set up to fail, nothing was straight forward at all.’

She added: ‘I've never been of the character to have anxiety or stress about things but recently this exam is having a massive impact on me and I'm sure everyone.’

This latest issue with the delayed exam has also prompted Josh Farrell, a prov-reg student based in Glasgow, to send an open letter to the GPhC expressing the frustration felt by many of his cohort in being ‘left in limbo once again’.

‘I had hoped I would never feel the urge to write something like this, and I believe as a year group we have shown the utmost patience,’ he said in the letter.

‘Countless [numbers] of us are having to travel hours and miles away from home to sit our registration exam. Some didn’t even receive the email.’

GPhC statement in full

In response to the mounting concerns a GPhC spokesperson said: ‘We know that some candidates have experienced issues when booking their place for the registration assessment. We are very sorry for the worry and anxiety this has caused and we would like to reassure these candidates that we are working hard with Pearson VUE to identify how we can resolve these issues.’

The spokesperson added that the ‘vast majority of candidates across England, Scotland and Wales’ had been able to book a test centre, with 2,705 registered so far.

‘We understand some candidates across Great Britain who have booked places may have to travel further than they may have anticipated to sit the assessment,' they said.

'Pearson VUE test centres are Covid-secure and are complying with social distancing requirements to ensure the safety of candidates. 

‘As a result, capacity at each centre is reduced which explains why, unfortunately, some people will have to travel longer distances than they may wish to.

They added: ‘We recognise that candidates in Scotland have faced particular challenges and some candidates have not yet been able to find a test centre within Scotland.  We are urgently exploring all possible options with Pearson VUE to try to release more places within Scotland and will keep candidates updated on progress.

‘We can reassure candidates that they are able to travel to sit the assessment as an essential activity. We do however recognise the challenges of travelling long distances and staying away from home during national lockdowns.’

The GPhC also said it would work with Pearson VUE to try and find a more ‘convenient option’ for candidates who are booked in to a test centre that is a ‘significant distance’ from their home, but said it ‘cannot guarantee this’.

‘We will keep in touch with candidates as we work to secure places for everyone, as near their home as possible in the current circumstances,’ the spokesperson added.

‘Resolve quickly’

Gail Fleming, director for education and professional development at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society said (RPS), said: ‘It is important that there is sufficient capacity so trainees avoid having to travel any significant distance to take the assessment, especially during a national lockdown.

She added that the RPS is also seeking confirmation of the timing of assessment sittings, which ‘assure the integrity of the assessment’.

‘We have contacted the GPhC to seek urgent clarification on this matter. Trainees will be focused on their exam preparation and must not have distractions such as trying to find a test centre. This issue must be resolved quickly,' she said.