Open access article
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society has made this feature article free to access in order to help healthcare professionals stay informed about an issue of national importance.
To learn more about coronavirus, please visit: https://www.rpharms.com/resources/pharmacy-guides/wuhan-novel-coronavirus
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Pharmacy is people. Those dispensing, checking, ordering or delivering medicines; advising and counselling patients; or picking up the phone to query a prescriber.
However, policies on self-isolation for those with symptoms of COVID-19 are having an impact on staffing levels, with some pharmacy teams down by 15%. Many are working long hours to meet demand as patients stock up on over-the-counter products, order prescription items early and request deliveries.
In hospital, dispensaries are brutally busy, with many pharmacists being relocated to assist with critical care and recruitment ongoing to staff five new Nightingale hospitals to cope with the pandemic.
The pharmacy workforce has recently been bolstered by more than 6,200 returning pharmacy professionals after the General Pharmaceutical Council quickly put out a call to pharmacists who have recently dropped off the register.
It is also encouraging that the thousands of volunteers who have signed up to help the NHS will be directed to help community pharmacy deliver medicines, although they must be vetted and trained, and are no substitute for an adequately-funded service.
We are still only in the foothills of this pandemic and the rising pressure on pharmacy is worrying
There have been moves to help community pharmacies cope with the unprecedented pressure on the sector, with advance payments, inspections, revalidation and some services scaled back. Short closures during the day are also now permitted to enable pharmacy teams to regroup.
However, we are still only in the foothills of this pandemic and the rising pressure on pharmacy is worrying. If there are not adequate numbers of people on the workforce, the whole system will stop functioning; this would be a disaster for the country, piling even more pressure on the rest of the NHS.
One of the best ways to prevent this happening is to ensure that pharmacy staff do not get sick or have to self-isolate for long periods.
Advice on personal protective equipment (PPE) has recently changed to recommend that if social distancing of two metres is not possible, fluid-repellent surgical masks should be used. However, social distancing is a virtual impossibility in many pharmacies; how are you meant to hand over a medicine, or give advice, to a patient from over two metres away?
This will require many more surgical masks to be made available to pharmacies as previous stocks were based on out-of-date advice that “there are few occasions” that pharmacy staff will need PPE.
Testing for COVID-19 infection must also be prioritised. The government is ramping up capacity, but it is not clear when testing will be opened up to pharmacy staff. It is vital to ensure that pharmacy staff and their families can be tested to ensure that those who do not have the disease — or are now immune to it — can return to work as swiftly as possible.
The NHS has a duty to protect frontline healthcare workers and this includes those in pharmacies. As the pandemic continues, this is the only way pharmacy teams will be able to carry out their vital role in keeping the public healthy, safe and informed.