How the Royal Pharmaceutical Society is working to support pharmacists through the COVID-19 pandemic

Since announcing it would be exclusively focusing its resources on supporting members through the COVID-19 outbreak for the foreseeable future, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society has been striving for better support for the profession across England, Scotland and Wales.

Pharmacist wearing PPE

Following the all-encompassing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) announced on 16 March 2020 that it would focus all its expertise and resources on supporting members, the wider sector and the public during the outbreak.

Speaking to The Pharmaceutical Journal, Robbie Turner, director of pharmacy and member experience at the RPS, said that the pandemic “has left the profession in an unprecedented situation”.

“The RPS has, therefore, decided to pause all non-essential activity and establish a programme dedicated to guiding our members and the profession through the crisis.”

We will continue to work hard for our members over the coming weeks and ensure they get the best possible support when they need it most

Turner added: “This is an incredibly difficult time for everyone involved in pharmacy, but we want you to know that we will be supporting you every step of the way. We will continue to work hard for our members over the coming weeks and ensure they get the best possible support when they need it most.”

Additionally, in light of the unprecedented pressures placed on the sector at this time, the Society’s Assembly announced on 27 March 2020 that it had decided to cancel the 2020 national pharmacy board elections. In its announcement, the RPS said that with pharmacists currently devoting all their energy towards supporting patients and the public, “an election would be a diversion from the key priority of the nation and the profession”.

Here, The Pharmaceutical Journal presents an overview of some of the work that the Society is doing as part of its COVID-19 response.

Talking to the government and devolved parliaments

There are ongoing talks with the UK government about what the sector needs. On 17 March 2020, the RPS published a list of policy asks, which covers requesting measures such as adequate personal protective equipment (PPE); an immediate cash injection for pharmacies trying to cover increased medicines costs, delivery costs and staff salaries; and recognition, in national government communications and support, of the crucial frontline role of pharmacists. 

The RPS is also talking weekly to Jo Churchill, undersecretary of state for health, about how pharmacists can be best supported by the government through the pandemic.

The role of community pharmacy is becoming ever more important in the fight against this virus

RPS Scotland and RPS Wales have written to their respective devolved governments setting out the support that is needed. In a letter sent to Vaughan Gething, minister for health and social services in the Welsh government, on 24 March 2020, Elen Jones, director of RPS Wales, said: “The role of community pharmacy is becoming ever more important in the fight against this virus,” adding that: “[The] continued support of the Welsh government for pharmacy teams across Wales is now critical.”

Meanwhile, Jonathan Burton, chair of the RPS Scottish Pharmacy Board, said in a letter to Jeane Freeman, Scottish cabinet secretary for health and sport — also sent on 24 March 2020 — that her support and that of first minister Nicola Sturgeon had given a “much-needed boost” and asked that they “continue to show how much you value pharmacy and to take every opportunity to include them in your communications and guidance”.

On 18 March 2020, the Scottish government’s COVID-19 response said that pharmacists and pharmacy technicians will be given access to the emergency care summary. This was welcomed by Burton, who noted that the Society “has been campaigning for a long time to get access to patient records for all pharmacists”.

In his response, Burton reiterated the Society’s policy asks, and said it was “essential that all pharmacists supporting the health service are given access to health and wellbeing support at this crucial time”.

After initial government communications, in which pharmacists were excluded from public praise directed towards the NHS, the RPS 
wrote to Matt Hancock, health and social care secretary to express its “shock” at the lack of support for pharmacy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the open letter, which was sent on 23 March 2020, Claire Anderson, chair of the RPS English Pharmacy Board, said many government communications have focused only on doctors and nurses, and that many pharmacists were reporting that they were “exhausted and in need of greater support”.

Since then, Hancock and prime minister Boris Johnson have publicly thanked pharmacists for their frontline efforts.

On 27 March 2020, the RPS issued a statement saying that current guidance and access to PPE for pharmacy teams was “unacceptable”, and called on the UK government and devolved parliaments to take “immediate action”.

Sandra Gidley, president of the RPS, said: “No pharmacist in any setting should be left wondering what to do if the coughing patient in front of them has COVID-19. Current PPE guidance assumes no one with COVID-19 symptoms is coming to pharmacies or are on non COVID-19 hospital wards — this just isn’t the case.”

Then, on 2 April 2020, Public Health England issued updated PPE guidance saying that sessional use of fluid-resistant surgical masks is recommended for pharmacists where social distancing is not maintained.

Advocating for pharmacy teams

Pharmacists began reporting more cases of abuse and aggression towards their teams during the first few weeks of the lockdown in March 2020. On 23 March 2020, the General Pharmaceutical Council said it was receiving an increasing number of reports that pharmacy staff were experiencing “abuse, disorder and even violence” from members of the public.

In response to these reports, the RPS wrote to the National Police Chiefs’ Council on 26 March 2020, asking for greater protection for pharmacy staff during the COVID-19 outbreak. The letter asked police to take a “zero-tolerance approach” to aggressive behaviour from members of the public, and for pharmacy staff to be given more support and reassurance.

Meanwhile, the RPS has also produced a range of posters that pharmacists can display on their premises, asking patients and customers to be polite, patient and kind to their staff.

Source: Royal Pharmaceutical Society

The Society has produced a range of posters for pharmacists to display on their premises

Turner said it was “disappointing to see that some members of the public are behaving poorly towards pharmacy teams”.

“This is not acceptable and will not be tolerated,” he said in a statement issued on 26 March 2020.

Likewise, Jones said on 2 April 2020 that she was “shocked to hear of pharmacy teams being verbally abused and even spat at”. 

Anyone who needs to visit a pharmacy should remain patient and respectful to pharmacy staff at this difficult time

She added: “Anyone who needs to visit a pharmacy should remain patient and respectful to pharmacy staff at this difficult time.”

Pharmacists as key workers

Schools were closed across the UK from 23 March 2020. Ahead of the closures, on 18 March 2020, the Department for Education asked schools to continue to educate the children of people whose work is critical to the national COVID-19 response. On 20 March, the RPS wrote an open letter to school headteachers explaining that pharmacy staff were critical to the COVID-19 response, like all social and healthcare workers.

Then, on 25 March 2020, the RPS wrote to the British Retail Consortium requesting that pharmacy staff be included in priority supermarket shopping hours for NHS staff, which were implemented by each major supermarket chain after panic buyers continuted to strip shelves of essential groceries. The RPS wrote a similar letter to supermarket staff, which explained that pharmacy teams were key NHS workers and should be included in their priority hours scheme.

Support for patients

On 31 March 2020, the Society announced it had signed a letter to Lord Bethell, parliamentary under secretary of state, as part of the Prescription Charges Coalition, calling for prescription charges to be suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coalition is a group of 48 charities and organisations calling on the government to scrap prescription charges for people with long-term conditions in England.

The RPS added it would raise the issue directly during its weekly meetings with Churchill.

In a statement accompanying the RPS announcement, Anderson said the pandemic had exacerbated the need for some patients to choose between buying medicines, heating their homes or buying food.

“I hope to see an emergency waiver on prescription charges as soon as possible,” she said.

Also focusing on patients is the Society’s website page dedicated to information for the public, which includes advice on self-isolation and stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“We are immensely proud of the amount of work that has already gone into supporting pharmacy professionals,” Turner told The Pharmaceutical Journal.

“We have established a dedicated COVID-19 hub page, which has been viewed over 110,000 times already, with guidance and frequently asked questions on a variety of topics, such as how pharmacies can support social distancing and on PPE, as well as wellbeing support for those being put through the emotional strain of the crisis.

“We are actively engaging with our members through webinars, podcasts and daily roundup videos, giving ‘hot off the press’ information and making sure everyone is kept up-to-date,” Turner added. 

The Society is continuing to focus on supporting the sector, and advocating for pharmacy, throughout the pandemic. For daily updates on the pandemic, follow 
The Pharmaceutical Journal’s live blog
. For advice and answers to questions about the coronavirus, contact the RPS Support, Monday to Friday, between 09:00 and 17:00 on: 020 7572 2737;; or @RPSSupport on Twitter.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, April 2020, Vol 304, No 7936;304(7936):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2020.20207881

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