Open access article
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society has made this article free to access in order to help healthcare professionals stay informed about an issue of national importance.
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The government has extended its free Pharmacy Collect service, which provides COVID-19 lateral flow tests to patients through community pharmacies in England, until the end of July 2021.
In a statement to The Pharmaceutical Journal, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) added that it was “considering” extending its contracts with wholesalers, beyond their June 2021 expiry, to continue providing tests to pharmacies at no cost.
The service, also known as the ‘Community Pharmacy COVID-19 Lateral Flow Device Distribution’ service, launched on 29 March 2021 as an advanced service and was due to be reviewed at the end of June 2021.
Within its first three weeks, 90% of pharmacies registered with the service, enabling them to order boxes of lateral flow tests from one of three wholesalers at no cost.
The boxes can then be supplied to patients free of charge, with pharmacies paid £1.50 per transaction of up to four boxes.
However, the government contracts with Alliance Healthcare and Phoenix Healthcare Distribution to provide the boxes to pharmacies — worth £686,400 and £205,920, respectively — are currently set to end on 23 June 2021.
The contract with Sigma Pharmaceuticals, worth £103,162, will end on 28 June 2021.
A spokesperson for the DHSC told The Pharmaceutical Journal: “The UK is now established as a leader in testing and lateral flow tests are helping us identify people without symptoms that could pass the virus to others, helping break the chains of transmission.
“Our offer of free rapid tests is being extended until the end of July  to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and we are currently considering contract extensions with wholesalers.”
The DHSC’s announcement comes after pharmacy minister Jo Churchill was questioned on the “potential risks” of using lateral flow tests regularly.
Churchill said the tests had “been rigorously tested and are safe to use on a regular basis”.
COVID-19 testing in community pharmacies
The Pharmacy Collect service was announced after months of confusion around whether pharmacies should be allowed to provide rapid tests for the COVID-19.
Public Health England initially said in May 2020 that rapid point-of-care COVID-19 tests, such as lateral flow antigen tests, should not be used in community pharmacies, owing to a lack of information on their accuracy. The guidance was later overturned in February 2021 for patients with symptoms of the virus, following a review of evidence.
However, despite the guidance at the time, in October 2020, Boots published plans to roll out a rapid point-of-care antigen test for asymptomatic COVID-19 patients — an announcement that the General Pharmaceutical Council said it would “follow up”.
NHS England later announced in November 2020 that it would be piloting the supply of COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction antigen tests to patients in Bradford, West Yorkshire.
At the end of 2020, pharmacies in Dudley began providing lateral flow tests to patients, receiving £10 per test. The scheme, provided with the help of Central Health Solutions, was also launched in Birmingham, Worcestershire, Telford and Wrekin, Stoke-on-Trent, Herefordshire and Shropshire.