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Open letter: Sector's exclusion from COVID-19 life cover is a disgrace

In a letter to health secretary Matt Hancock, C+D editor Beth Kennedy questions why pharmacy teams aren’t automatically covered by COVID-19 life assurance for healthcare workers

Dear Mr Hancock,

I hope this letter finds you well.

I am writing to discuss your announcement on Monday (April 27) that a £60,000 life assurance payout will be made to the families of frontline health and care staff who die after contracting COVID-19. This is, in many ways, news to be welcomed.

However, the scheme was said to cover staff “who provide hands-on personal care for people who have contracted coronavirus or work in health or care settings where the virus is present”. GPs, dentists and care home staff were on the list of professionals who would be covered due to their “essential and lifesaving work”, but I was shocked to see community pharmacy teams were not among them.   

After all, with hospitals struggling to cope with the influx of COVID-19 patients and many GPs only offering virtual consultations, pharmacies are the only frontline healthcare services left open in primary care.

Pharmacy teams are treating patients face to face, often with a dismal lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect them from the virus. Many C+D readers have given examples of patients coughing without covering their mouths in the pharmacy and even resorting to physical violence when asked to comply with social distancing rules.

So far, three pharmacists have died from the virus. But apparently all this isn’t “hands on” enough to qualify pharmacy teams for the scheme.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DH) told C+D that pharmacists would only be covered by the scheme in “exceptional circumstances”. What is community pharmacy’s role at this time if not essential and lifesaving? How many more deaths will it take for the government to take pharmacy’s role in battling this virus seriously?

The English government’s treatment of its community pharmacy teams during this pandemic is nothing short of a national disgrace. While their colleagues in WalesScotland and Northern Ireland have been given additional funding packages to recognise the workload COVID-19 is bringing to pharmacies, teams in England have been repeatedly disrespected by the DH and NHS England. And no, the £300 million in advance payments that will eventually have to be paid back does not constitute new money.

I fear that the exclusion of pharmacy teams from this policy will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Years of underfunding and lack of recognition have severely weakened the morale of England’s pharmacy workforce, many of whom only turn up to do their jobs every day out of concern for their patients.

This policy not extending to them could understandably lead pharmacy professionals to rethink their choice of profession altogether, at a time when the country needs them most.

Now is the time to move from warm, but ultimately empty, words about pharmacy teams’ heroic work on the COVID-19 frontline to something much more tangible. If pharmacy’s work is as vital as you have said it is, extend the life assurance scheme to pharmacists and their teams, and do it now.

I hope you will give this matter serious consideration.

Your sincerely,

Beth Kennedy, editor, C+D

Sign the petition asking the DH for life assurance for community pharmacy teams here.

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