Health minister promises to extend ‘zero tolerance’ measures to community pharmacy after reports of abuse

Shortages of lateral flow tests have led to verbal abuse of pharmacy staff, pharmacy bodies have said.
Woman talking to a pharmacist

A government minister has pledged to include community pharmacies in work already underway to combat abuse from the public in general practice, as part of the its ‘zero tolerance’ policy on mistreatment of NHS staff.

The comments made by Maria Caulfield, minister of public health and primary care, came in response to an open letter sent by the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) and the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) on 6 January 2022, which said shortages of lateral flow tests (LFTs) have “spilled over into verbal abuse of pharmacy staff”.

Responding to the letter on Twitter on 7 January 2022, Caulfield said the government has “zero tolerance on this and will include pharmacists in the work we are doing on this with GPs”.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) confirmed to The Pharmaceutical Journal on 10 January 2022 that Caulfield was referring to a plan designed to support GPs, including tackling abuse in general practice, set out by NHS England on 14 October 2021.

The document, ‘Our plan for improving access for patients and supporting general practice’, outlined plans to work “with the trade unions and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges to launch a zero-tolerance campaign on abuse of NHS staff”.

“We are taking action to protect and support staff through the NHS Violence Reduction Programme and the NHS continues to work closely with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to bring offenders to justice,” it said.

The NHS Violence Reduction Programme includes trialling the use of body cameras for ambulance trust workers, providing training for staff to manage violence and offering mental health support for staff who have been victims of violence.

The document added that NHS England would “immediately establish a £5m fund to facilitate essential upgrades to practice security measures, distributed via NHS regional teams”.

However, neither the DHSC nor NHS England provided clarity in time for publication on whether community pharmacies would also be able to access this fund, following Caulfield’s comments.

The letter from the NPA and CCA also called for the public to treat pharmacy staff “with courtesy, as you yourself would wish to be treated”.

Lateral flow tests have faced supply issues since December 2021, when the UK government announced that fully vaccinated contacts of people with a positive COVID-19 test were required to take a LFT each day for seven days, in lieu of self-isolating.

“Pharmacies have distributed nearly 300 million lateral flow kits, but the current supply into pharmacies is not enough to meet demand,” the letter said.

“We have told the government that they should either guarantee enough stock or have an honest conversation with the public about prioritising essential workers. It is unfair, in our view, for pharmacists to be put in a position of rationing stock.”

Mark Lyonette, chief executive of the NPA, said the supply issues are “stretching people’s patience, but that’s no excuse for abusive behaviour and people need to understand the constraints on pharmacy teams at this time”.  

Malcolm Harrison, chief executive of the CCA, said the association is “saddened to hear of reports of pharmacy staff being subject to abuse and violence”.

“Teams have worked tirelessly since the pandemic began in early 2020 and it is imperative that members of the public treat staff with the respect that they deserve.”

Community pharmacies are expected to be able to access 10.5 million LFTs each week for the rest of January 2022, with pharmacy representatives saying this is hoped to meet demand.

Read more: How reliable are lateral flow COVID-19 tests?

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Citation
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, January 2022, Vol 308, No 7957;308(7957)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2022.1.123111

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