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Pharmacy bodies lambast PHE lack of advice on BAME COVID-19 risks

Pharmacy bodies have voiced disappointment that a Public Health England (PHE) review “fails” to offer guidance on how to mitigate the higher COVID-19 risks for BAME people.

“Evidence suggests that COVID-19 may have a disproportionate impact on people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups”, according to the PHE review, Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19, published earlier this week (June 2).

However, the review “fails to discuss” the reasons BAME people are more vulnerable to COVID-19 “in any depth” the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA) said in a statement on Wednesday (June 3).

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) report published last month (May 7) had already revealed that BAME people are “at greater risk” from COVID-19 than those of white ethnicity, it added.

The PHE report draws attention to the fact that the BAME community are more likely to live in urban areas, in overcrowded households and in deprived areas and to “have jobs that expose them to higher risk” – increasing the possibility of COVID-19 transmission. It adds that those of a BAME background are also more likely to be born overseas, meaning they could “face additional barriers in accessing services” as a result of cultural or language differences.

However, compared with the ONS report, “the PHE report does not offer much greater insight on first examination”, the PDA said.

Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) president Sandra Gidley said the organisation had hoped for “an action plan to address the issues for BAME patient-facing frontline clinicians”. The review is “disappointing” as it offers “no recommendations or actions and it is unclear how the government plans to proceed”, she added.

The General Pharmaceutical Council told C+D yesterday (June 4) that, as of June 3 there were 26,928 (47%) pharmacists and pharmacy technicians on its register who have given their ethnicity as “Asian or Asian British”, “black or black British”, “Chinese or Chinese British”, “Arab or Arab British”, or “mixed ethnicity”.

No guidance for employers

The PHE report also fails to provide “meaningful guidance” for employers on the actions they could take to reduce the COVID-19-related risks faced by their BAME workforce, the PDA said.

Employers and responsible pharmacists should “work with their employees including BAME and other at-risk groups to assess their risk and put in place all possible reasonable mitigations”, the PDA added.

The RPS called on the government to introduce a “robust risk assessment and protection” for BAME staff and other vulnerable groups.

NHS England is encouraging employers to carry out risk assessments of their BAME staff and those who are at risk due to other factors, such as age or underlying health conditions.

However, when speaking to C+D earlier this week (June 3), Professor Mahendra Patel – pharmacist and a member of the RPS English pharmacy board and C+D’s clinical advisory board – emphasised that the risk assessment is not mandatory. The assessment might also bring challenges for smaller independent community pharmacies, many of whom “run on minimum staff,” he added.

“How are you going to encourage [BAME staff] to work at the back? Who’s going to be at the front [of the pharmacy]? They simply don’t have the workforce to replace them. They’re stretched as it is,” Professor Patel said.

Government should act now

The PDA urged the government to “investigate the issue of increased risks for BAME individuals” to better understand the reasons behind it, using the knowledge to inform what measures to take to safeguard BAME and other at-risk groups.

Ms Gidley said the government must ensure “BAME pharmacists feel as safe as possible” and that to do so, it should consult pharmacy “to bring about real change to support and protect our workforce”.

“There are also opportunities here about how pharmacists can support vulnerable populations and tackle health inequalities,” she added.

Professor Patel said pharmacies can “play a huge role in gathering intelligence around BAME patients and patient groups”, enabling more data to be shared and allowing studies to be carried out to examine how BAME communities might respond to new drugs and vaccinations.

A PHE spokesperson told C+D today (June 5) that its report will "inform the important work the Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch is now taking forward.”

What do you make of the PHE report?

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