The pharmacy sector has hit back at GP criticism of NHS England and Improvement’s (NHSE&I) decision to expand the Covid vaccination programme to community pharmacy sites. 

It comes after some GPs have called on the body to slow down opening new sites - including pharmacy-led sites - amid concerns there is not enough vaccine to go around.

NHSE&I has so far commissioned 200 pharmacy-led vaccination sites.

Hassan Khan, owner of Cullimore Chemist in Edgware - the first pharmacy in London to start delivering the Covid vaccine - told the Pharmacist that GPs should be asking pharmacists to ‘speed up’ rather than ‘slow down’.

Over the last four days, the pharmacy has delivered over 1,400 vaccinations to eligible patients in West London, with plans to vaccinate another 2000 this week.

‘We need as many sites offering the vaccine as possible,’ he said.

He said GPs should be ‘focusing their efforts on other health methods such as seeing patients with health issues - who are currently struggling to get appointments,’ instead of ‘worrying about a shortage in the supply chain’.

He added: ‘Vaccinating people should be left to pharmacies [with three consultation rooms or more] and superhub sites, who are well situated and well equipped to vaccinate on a large scale.’

‘Increase pharmacy involvement’

The Pharmacist’s sister publication Pulse this week (20 January) reported on GPs who had spoken out against the expansion of Covid vaccine delivery to community pharmacies, saying that they have the capacity to deliver much more than they are receiving.

Concerns raised by GPs with Pulse included that it was ‘not fair’ that individual community pharmacies can sign up to receive vaccine orders directly while practices can only get supply via PCN hubs, and that pharmacies lack access to the data about which patients are most at risk.

Nicholas Grundy, a GP who works at a Covid-19 vaccine site, also told the Pharmacist he was against the opening of more sites when current sites are experiencing late, missed or even cancelled deliveries.

‘It seems stupid in that situation to ask a dysfunctional organisation to cover more sites,’ he said.

Alastair Buxton, PSNC’s director of NHS Services stressed that ‘general practice alone cannot deliver the totality of the programme’, and it is therefore ‘right’ that the NHS is putting in place other locations – including community pharmacy sites.

‘This is the largest ever vaccination programme the UK has seen and it also needs to be delivered at a rapid pace to ensure the desired benefits for patients and the nation are achieved,’ he said.

He added: ‘We believe a greater number of community pharmacies should be involved in the programme as the availability of vaccines improves over the coming weeks so that all in primary care can play a part in helping the country win the battle against the coronavirus.’

‘This is not a relay race’

Darren Powell, clinical lead at NHS Digital and relief pharmacist manager at Weldricks was also in support of community pharmacy’s involvement in the vaccination programme.

He said: ‘I'd say it's much better to be spinning up pharmacy provision now, in anticipation of the increase in vaccine production so we all ‘hit the ground jabbing’.

‘Not all pharmacies will engage with the delivery of the vaccine, but it is an important piece of the provision jigsaw along with GP surgeries and the hubs (both local and regional).’

He added: ‘This is a "relay race" not a sprint and we need to work together so all patients can access the vaccine within their communities,’ he explained.

Supply is ‘limiting factor’

On Monday (18 January) health secretary Matt Hancock said the vaccination programme’s ‘limiting factor’ remains supply, rather than capacity.

Speaking at a Number 10 press briefing, MrHancock said: ‘We’re prioritising the supply of the vaccine into those parts of the country that need to complete the over-80s.

‘Supply is the rate-limiting factor – the NHS has brilliantly been able to deliver the amount of supply that we have available ready to go out.’

Claire Anderson, chair of Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s English Pharmacy Board told the Pharmacist: ‘While having enough supplies of vaccines is crucial, community pharmacies can play a key role in boosting vaccination reach, particularly in areas of deprivation.

She added: ‘This national effort will take collaboration across the whole of primary care and we’ve welcomed the growing number of community pharmacies able to participate.’

Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair, said ensuring existing sites have vaccine supply should be the priority.  

He said: ‘For the vaccination programme to be a success, it needs to be rolled out quickly and efficiently, ensuring all those in priority groups have access to vaccination in their local area.

‘General practice has traditionally played a leading role in mass immunisation campaigns and continue to do so for the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, while pharmacies also have key part to play.’

He added: ‘While there should be consideration around filling gaps in coverage, given current supply issues the focus must be to ensure existing sites – whether these are GP practices or pharmacies – have a steady supply of vaccines before bringing more sites online in areas where there is already provision.’

Today, the NHS announced the opening of 65 new pharmacy-led vaccination sites, which brings the total number of pharmacy sites currently administering jabs in England to 71.