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'All pharmacy needs for Christmas is a national COVID-19 jab programme'

It's ludicrous that space isn't being made for more community pharmacies to join the COVID-19 vaccination programme at this critical point in the pandemic, says Beth Kennedy

Like thousands of people across the UK, yesterday I queued for over an hour to get my COVID-19 booster jab.

Like many waiting their turn at that mass vaccination centre, I was genuinely happy to be there – despite grumbling a bit at waiting outside in freezing temperatures – and felt incredibly lucky to live in a country that had so many vaccines ready and available to help us in the ongoing battle against COVID-19.

But while I stood in that queue, toes slowly going numb from the cold, my mind started to wander. Why, I asked myself, are more community pharmacies not being drafted in to this most gargantuan of tasks?

The government has put in ambitious targets, aiming to offer boosters to millions of people before the year is out. So why have only around 1,500 community pharmacies in England, representing a tiny fraction of the community pharmacy network, been given the green light to offer the service? Given that pharmacy has proven its might in offering flu vaccinations, with record-breaking year after record-breaking year, overlooking the majority of them now seems ridiculous.

And those pharmacies that are offering COVID jabs are doing such a fantastic job, with some sharing stories of 24-hour vaccination drives to help get the nation boosted before Christmas. So why aren't more being given the same opportunity?

GPs are being told to pause some of their services to concentrate on administering booster jabs. And while this makes plenty of sense, would it not be logical to spread the load, and deploy England's army of pharmacists to help in the vaccination efforts?

The really frustrating this is that this is not a new complaint. Back in January, I called for NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE&I) to cut the red tape preventing more pharmacies from participating in the vaccination programme. Back then, any pharmacy that wanted to offer the jabs had to commit to giving 1,000 vaccines per week, which was simply not feasible for many.

That requirement is no longer in place, and yet the invisible barriers to the majority of pharmacies offering COVID-19 jabs are still there. Last week, C+D reported that – inexplicably – fewer than one in three pharmacies that had applied to join the COVID-19 booster jab programme over the summer had been accepted.

While the scrapping of the 15-minute observation requirement post-booster jab may go some way to allowing more pharmacies onto the scheme, none of that seems to be happening with any urgency. 

This presents something of a problem at this point in the pandemic, when time is of the essence. Reported COVID-19 cases are rocketing due to the Omicron variant and the nation waits with baited breath to find out what effect this will have on our NHS early in the new year. After all, nobody wants a return to the bleak days of early 2021, when the daily COVID-19 death toll reached a grim peak.

But administrative burdens seem to be a barrier here. While the shortest time a pharmacy-led site had to wait between applying to offer the service and getting approval to do so was 14 days, some had to wait up to 78 days, with an average waiting time of 44 days. 

Clearly, we do not have 44 days to wait at this point in the pandemic. Rather than putting the burden of individually approving sites onto NHSE&I, it would make more sense to standardise the terms of a service that the majority of pharmacies could provide.

So, it seems clear to me that a national pharmacy COVID-19 vaccination programme would not just be welcome, but vital if we are to turn the tide of rising cases. 

Community pharmacy has, rightly, been praised time and again for its superhuman efforts during the pandemic. While praise is always welcome, it's time to move from words to action and allow the sector to show what it can do.

Over to you, NHSE&I. It's high time that community pharmacy was allowed to come in from the cold.

Beth Kennedy is C+D's editor


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