Excluding pharmacists from benefits available to healthcare workers during the pandemic was ‘shocking’ and ‘disappointing’, sector representatives have told the national Covid-19 public inquiry.

Submissions from the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) also highlighted the ways that community pharmacists helped protect vulnerable patients during the pandemic.

In particular, a lawyer representing the NPA and the RPS called attention to how the government initially excluded community pharmacists from a life assurance scheme for healthcare workers who died during the course of their ‘essential and lifesaving work’ – a decision which was only reversed after petitions from the sector.

Brian Stanton, of Innovo Law, told the inquiry during a preliminary hearing this Wednesday that community pharmacy staff were initially told they would only be considered for the scheme in exceptional circumstances, ‘despite being part of NHS primary care, risking their lives every day on the frontline to treat patients alongside colleagues from across the NHS and social care sector, and dealing with a huge surge in demand and increase in working hours’.

Representing the NPA, he said that the ‘deliberate omission’ of pharmacists from the life assurance scheme for healthcare workers was ‘one of the worst examples’ of the government’s tendency to treat community pharmacy differently from other healthcare professionals, ‘often by omission or afterthought’.

He added that the move to exclude pharmacists from the scheme had ‘shocked and disappointed the whole profession’.

In addition to the life assurance scheme, community pharmacists were not recognised as key workers, were not given access to the NHS personal protective equipment portal in England until six months into the pandemic, and were not able to access Covid-19 testing until November 2020 ‘because community pharmacy was inaccurately categorised as a ‘retail setting’ rather than a healthcare establishment’, Mr Stanton told the hearing.

Mr Stanton also represented the RPS at the inquiry, highlighting how pharmacy teams had provided safe access to medicines, with community pharmacies remaining open during the pandemic amid ‘a huge surge in demand from patients’ and a ‘unique and challenging work environment’.

And he said that pharmacists and pharmacy teams often put themselves at risk so that they could continue looking after patients ‘during a time at national crisis’.

He also highlighted the tragic deaths of pharmacists and pharmacy team members who died after contracting Covid-19.

‘Given this crucial role, and the efforts and sacrifices made, it has been hugely disappointing and distressing that the pharmacy profession, and particularly community pharmacy, was often an afterthought in government planning, policy and communications,’ Mr Stanton said on behalf of the RPS.

‘The difference in treatment between pharmacists who provide NHS contracted services compared with healthcare workers directly employed by the NHS has been a recurring and systemic issue and the RPS and others in the profession have repeatedly called for pharmacists to be recognised for the frontline healthcare role they perform.’

And he said that ‘one of the worst examples of these double standards was the omission of pharmacists from the life assurance scheme’.

‘The whole pharmacy profession was shocked and dismayed to learn that community pharmacists would only be considered for the scheme in England in exceptional circumstances,’ Mr Stanton added.

‘It remains unclear how and why this approach was taken by government.’

And he said that though the decision was quickly reversed, ‘it is sadly a decision that has left a bitter taste within the profession’.

In a statement issued after the hearing, RPS President Claire Anderson said: ‘We have urged the inquiry to recognise the vital contribution and dedication of pharmacists and pharmacy teams across the whole of the health service during Covid-19.

‘Pharmacy teams were under enormous strain and worked incredibly hard in very challenging circumstances to keep looking after patients and the public during this national crisis.

‘We must all learn lessons and reflect on both the successes and challenges that we faced so we can better prepare for the future.

‘As a nation, we also need to look towards how we build resilience across the health service and make the most of pharmacists’ clinical skills to support patient care, backed by sustainable funding, appropriate access to records, and long-term workforce planning.’

In previous submissions of evidence presented to the inquiry, Mr Stanton on behalf of the NPA, highlighted the ‘frontline service’ provided by pharmacists during the Covid-19 pandemic and warned that many are now at risk of closure because of underfunding.