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‘Community pharmacy should be front-and-centre during the COVID-19 inquiry’

Next year’s inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is pharmacy’s opportunity to show what it did well, and to suggest what might be done differently in the future, says pharmacy lawyer Noel Wardle.

Community pharmacists are busy people, and their to-do list never seems to get shorter. I therefore doubt that the forthcoming public inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic that the UK government announced earlier this year is at the top of their list of priorities. 

However, it is important that community pharmacy starts to prepare for the inquiry now; time goes by quickly and the sector needs to have a clear position in relation to the many issues that are likely to be considered by the inquiry.

By way of background, any government minister can instigate a public inquiry "in relation to a case where it appears to him that particular events have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern". 

The government minister must set the terms of reference for the inquiry, must appoint the inquiry panel (including the chair) and set the start date.

Once the inquiry is up and running, the chair has wide ranging powers to run the inquiry, including a power to require individuals to provide a witness statement, to give evidence at the inquiry and to provide documents.

The government has already announced that a public inquiry will be held into the COVID-19 pandemic, and that it will start some time in spring 2022, although we do not have an exact start date yet.

We also do not yet know the terms of reference, but it’s pretty easy to guess at the broad outline of the issues that the panel will have to consider – because we’ve all lived through them over the last 18 months in both our personal and professional lives.

If we think back to the start of the pandemic and the developments since then, it is clear that the inquiry is likely to be extensive and wide-ranging and, in my view, should have community pharmacy firmly at its heart. Take the following issues, which are likely to be core to the inquiry and its findings, and you can see how pharmacy is going to play a significant part:

  • Medicine supply chain issues and pricing spikes
  • COVID-19 safety of premises, including healthcare premises
  • The availability and use of PPE
  • The extent of, and suitability of, government guidance
  • The continuity and availability of healthcare services and the impact of the pandemic on other healthcare provision
  • The use of emergency legislation such as, for example, medicines and NHS legislation
  • NHS Test and Trace and the availability of testing services
  • The effect of lockdowns and self-isolation, including on healthcare service provision
  • The vaccination rollout

Bearing in mind that, in addition to this list, there are other areas that are likely to be considered by the panel that may not directly relate to community pharmacy, such as the action taken in the early stages and border security, you can see that this is going to be a significant inquiry.

In fact, inquiries are notorious for being time-consuming and costly. According to the Institute for Government, "the 69 inquiries launched between 1990 and 2017 have varied a lot in duration, although most take around two years to report back.

“The shortest inquiry was the Hammond inquiry into ministerial conduct relating to the Hinduja affair; this took only 45 days. The longest was the inquiry into Hyponatraemia-related deaths; this took 13 years and three months to complete".  The most expensive inquiry - the Bloody Sunday Inquiry - cost £210.6m (adjusted for inflation as of 2017).

So, while the COVID-19 public inquiry may well start next year, it is very unlikely to finish in 2022, and perhaps not even in 2023.

Even though it is going to take some time for the inquiry to get going, it is important that pharmacy leadership bodies engage with community pharmacists and contractors now to help frame the sector’s response and to build the narrative from pharmacy’s point of view. At the end of the inquiry, the panel will produce a report and is likely to make recommendations. This is pharmacy’s opportunity to show what it did well, and to suggest what might be done differently in the future.

I would encourage every pharmacist to think about how they have made a difference in their own communities over the last 18 months to protect the health, safety and welfare of their patients, and what they might have been able to do if only they had had the chance. It is those views that pharmacy representative bodies are going to want to get across to the panel, and the work on framing those views should start sooner rather than later.

Noel Wardle is a solicitor and Partner at Temple Bright LLP specialising in pharmacy law



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