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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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More than 90% of community pharmacies in England are now distributing free rapid lateral flow tests as part of the Pharmacy Collect service, the government has said.
The service was added to the pharmacy contract as an advanced service on 29 March 2021, with community pharmacies able to claim £200 if they signed up to provide the service by 18 April 2021.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told MPs on 19 April 2021 that Pharmacy Collect had been rolled out “to over nine in ten pharmacies”, providing an additional route to the twice-weekly testing for asymptomatic patients promised by the government.
As part of the service, patients can collect one box of seven test kits free of charge. The tests are then self-administered by the patient, away from the pharmacy.
Pharmacies are paid £1.50 plus VAT per box of seven test kits distributed, in addition to a one-off set-up fee of £250.
Pharmacies were initially told in the service specification that there would be an initial weekly order limit of 12 cartons — or 2 cartons per day — which would be kept under review.
However, on 9 April 2021, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) said supplies were being limited to one carton per day “to support the equitable distribution of tests to all the community pharmacies that have signed up to provide the service”.
The Department of Health and Social Care later said on 19 April 2021 that it was “aware that some pharmacies are unable to immediately order test kits”.
“Stock is being replenished to wholesalers on a daily basis with deliveries being made to pharmacies within a matter of days in order to meet demand.”
Commenting on the number of pharmacies now offering the service, Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at the PSNC, said the response had been “even better than we had predicted”.
“The fact that in a matter of days, well over 90% of pharmacies have signed up to provide the service is a testament to the commitment of pharmacy teams up and down the country to support their local communities,” he said.
“Distributing test kits is a great way for the accessibility of community pharmacies and the relationships their teams have with the local community to be used to help the nation’s COVID-19 recovery effort, including supporting less well-served groups of the population.”
Hancock later added in a statement that pharmacies “will play a key role in our rapid testing programme, which is a vital tool in reopening society in the months ahead”.
“I have been delighted at the level of interest and how fast the response has been from pharmacies to take part, with nine in ten registering to offer rapid test kits within ten days,” he said.
“The testing only takes 30 minutes and will help people stop the spread of the virus — protecting families and communities and saving lives.”
COVID-19 testing in community pharmacies
The Pharmacy Collect service comes after months of confusion around whether pharmacies should be allowed to provide rapid tests for the virus.
Public Health England had 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 pharmacy, owing to a lack of information on their accuracy. The guidance was later overturned in February 2021 for patients with symptoms, following a review of evidence.
But 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.
Elsewhere, 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.