Community pharmacies across the UK will be able to provide COVID-19 and flu vaccinations away from their registered premises on a permanent basis, after changes to legislation, the UK government has said.
Following a consultation that ran from 8–29 December 2021, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has said it plans to make permanent changes to the Human Medicines Regulations (HMRs) 2012, which had been temporarily amended in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In October 2020, the government amended the HMRs to expand the workforce eligible to administer COVID-19 vaccines, enabling additional healthcare professionals to vaccinate the public. These provisions had been set to expire on 1 April 2022.
However, the DHSC has now said, in response to the consultation, published on 25 January 2022, that these provisions would be “made in legislation to come into force on 1 April 2022”.
The document added that it will also “permanently retain the provision” that has enabled community pharmacy contractors to provide COVID-19 and flu vaccines “away from their normal registered premises”, which had also been set to expire on 1 April 2022.
This was first allowed in England during the 2020/2021 flu season, when NHS England’s service specification for the ‘Community pharmacy seasonal influenza vaccination advanced service’ said contractors no longer needed to notify regional teams prior to undertaking vaccinations off-site.
The consultation document said this flexibility had “been used on a regular basis by the majority of community pharmacy run COVID-19 vaccination sites, where the main site was located away from their normal registered premises”.
“It has also allowed many hundreds of pharmacies to offer pop-up clinics, in particular supporting groups of patients where bookings were not able to be made on the health service booking system”.
The government noted in the consultation response that the NHS’s capacity to administer COVID-19 and flu vaccines “would be severely constrained if the regulations which will cease to have effect on 1 April 2022 are not extended”.
It added that it plans to lay the amendments before Parliament “in early 2022” to “give health services the certainty they need to be able to continue to plan and operate mass vaccination programmes on the same basis as now”.
Commenting on the proposed legislation changes, Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, said: “We welcome the government’s decision to retain the flexibility for community pharmacy contractors to provide off-site vaccinations.
“The sector’s amazing performance in delivering both flu and COVID vaccinations this winter has helped demonstrate the way in which community pharmacy could play a much larger role in future vaccination programmes, and making off-site provision a permanent feature further supports this.”
Commenting on the permanent changes to the HMRs, Nat Mitchell, pharmacist and director at JWW Allison and Sons pharmacy in Cockermouth, Cumbria, told The Pharmaceutical Journal: “With regards to flu, there is no way that we would be able to have run the service we did in our premises [without the amendments to regulations], as we did a relatively large number in a short time frame.
“This was made more important with social distancing requirements. We also vaccinated in village halls to improve reach,” he explained.
“With COVID-19 vaccinations, we utilised alternative premises and workforce as they are more labour intensive. So, I welcome both flexibility measures and they will help many pharmacies to reach their potential when it comes to both flu and COVID-19.”
According to the latest data from the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, community pharmacies have administered 4,780,689 flu vaccines as of 25 January 2022, far exceeding the 2,766,332 vaccinations administered between 1 September 2020 and 31 March 2021.
In the first year of the COVID-19 vaccination programme, community pharmacy-led sites administered 22 million COVID-19 vaccines.