Community pharmacy vaccination sites in England should remain open for 12 hours per day, 7 days per week, in an effort to accelerate the COVID-19 booster jab campaign, NHS England has said.
In a letter sent to all COVID-19 vaccination sites on 13 December 2021, NHS England said creating additional capacity was an “immediate priority for all sites” to support plans “to offer every eligible adult over the age of 18 [years] a booster vaccination by 31 December ”.
The new booster target was announced by prime minister Boris Johnson on 12 December 2021 in a prerecorded televised address, in light of the growing threat from the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Pharmacy leaders subsequently said they were in “urgent talks” with the NHS on measures that could be implemented to help all contractors manage demand.
The letter from NHS England said the additional capacity should come from “maximising throughput and efficiency at existing sites, opening additional pods and extending opening times”.
“Sites should request resources to enable them to operate 12 hours a day as standard, 7 days a week,” the letter continued, with appointments made available across local communities “at least 16 hours a day”.
“All community pharmacy sites will be supported to extend their opening hours and ensure they can deliver at their maximum capacity,” it added.
Further detail specifically for pharmacies is expected to be set out in an upcoming operational note, according to the letter.
In an effort to further increase capacity at vaccination sites, the chief medical officers of the UK also announced that the 15-minute wait after Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines “should be suspended”.
The guidance, published on 14 December 2021, said that “in the context of the considerable need for people to be boosted or vaccinated, the 15-minute wait after a vaccination with [an] mRNA vaccine will cause more harm than it can avert because it will significantly reduce the number of people who can be vaccinated over a short period of time”.
According to the latest available data from NHS England, published on 17 November 2021, 1,464 pharmacies are currently offering COVID-19 vaccinations, and have delivered more than 15 million vaccinations since January 2021.
Speaking in the House of Commons on 13 December 2021, health secretary Sajid Javid said part of the government’s plan for the booster campaign “is to involve hundreds more pharmacists”.
“The good news is that they are incredibly keen, so that is exactly what I expect to happen,” he said.
However, some pharmacists have expressed frustration over the ‘onboarding’ process of new community pharmacy sites.
Ashley Cohen, managing director at Pharm-Assist, which is leading on two vaccination sites in Leeds and York, Yorkshire, has warned that pharmacy contractors will “lose days in red tape” when setting up new sites without “swift action from the rest of the relevant organisations”.
“We were approached over three weeks ago to help increase vaccinations in low uptake communities and difficult to reach areas, as we had been very successful in getting high numbers in our pharmacy vaccination sites,” he said.
“We have spent weeks identifying new site opportunities, growing our team to in excess of 100 people … who can help ramp up the vaccination requirements.”
However, Cohen said the sites still have yet to receive official approval that would allow them to upload appointments to NHS Digital’s national booking service and start offering vaccinations.
On 13 December 2021, Cohen said he was told “that instead of getting a new site [to] just increase capacity at your existing site”.
“However, we are already at max capacity doing 800 [vaccinations] per day,” he said. “So, we need to have a new site in order to make a significant dent in the local numbers.”
“There are so many pharmacy teams willing and able to step up and do more, we just need the mechanism to do it.”
A statement from NHS England on 14 December 2021 noted that vaccinations sites delivered a record number of 418,000 COVID-19 booster jabs on 13 December, with 185,000 of these delivered by community pharmacies.