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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Face masks should remain mandatory in healthcare settings in England, including pharmacies, beyond 19 July 2021 when the government plans to lift the majority of COVID-19 restrictions, healthcare professional bodies have said.
The plea comes as Public Health England (PHE) confirmed to The Pharmaceutical Journal that guidance advising the use of face masks in community pharmacies will remain unchanged on 19 July 2021.
However, on 12 July 2021, prime minister Boris Johnson announced that the legal requirements to wear face coverings will be lifted from that date, instead saying that the government “expects and recommends” their use in enclosed spaces.
In response to the announcement, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) in England, the British Medical Association, British Dental Association, Royal College of Nursing and the College of Optometrists have called for mandatory requirements for face masks and social distancing by the public to stay in place past 19 July 2021 in all healthcare settings.
In a joint letter to Johnson, dated 14 July 2021, the professional bodies say that health and care settings should be seen “as unique environments for the care and safety of the most vulnerable”.
“While you state that you would expect the public to continue wearing face coverings in healthcare settings, we ask that this is translated into action,” the letter said.
“We cannot accept knowingly allowing patients and staff to become infected by the virus and becoming ill in a setting that is meant to look after peoples’ health.
“We would be failing in our duty to patients by putting them at risk of avoidable harm.”
Commenting on the letter, Thorrun Govind, chair of the RPS English Pharmacy Board, said: “Despite some pharmacies being in retail environments, they remain a healthcare setting and have been relied upon to support and protect the public over the past 18 months.
“We are therefore calling on the government to make a decision to support and protect pharmacists and healthcare professionals, as well as the public.”
Despite the lifting of legal requirements around face masks on 19 July 2021, PHE has said infection prevention and control (IPC) guidance around their use is not expected to change.
The guidance currently advises that in “areas where triaging for COVID-19 is not possible, for example, community pharmacies … staff should maintain two metres physical distance with customers/service users, using floor markings, clear screens or wear surgical face masks (type IIR) where this is not possible”.
It also advises the “use of facemasks/coverings by all outpatients (if tolerated) and visitors when entering a hospital, GP/dental surgery or other care settings”.
In a statement on its website, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee clarified that care settings include community pharmacies.
A spokesperson from PHE said the guidance — which is agreed by all four UK nations, PHE and NHS England — is under constant review.
Susan Hopkins, COVID-19 strategic response director at PHE, said: “There is current IPC guidance in place in healthcare settings and both patient and staff safety must remain the highest priority.
“The guidance, which includes measures for both staff and visitors, covers appropriate use of face covering and social distancing.”
On 13 July 2021, the General Pharmaceutical Council advised pharmacy owners to “carefully consider” its standards for registered pharmacies, as well as other government guidance, “to help them ensure they continue to provide COVID-safe environments as the pandemic continues”.