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‘Logistical difficulties’ preventing wider pharmacy COVID vax rollout

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi speaking to the Sigma webinar last night (February 11)
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi speaking to the Sigma webinar last night (February 11)

“Logistical difficulties” are preventing all pharmacies becoming COVID vaccination sites – but they will be part of the rollout's “next chapter”, minister Nadhim Zahawi has said.

Speaking at a webinar hosted by pharmaceutical manufacturer Sigma last night (February 10), Mr Zawahi was asked by C+D to clarify earlier comments in which he said he did not want vaccines “just sitting” in pharmacy fridges.

Mr Zawahi said the reason all pharmacies were not being used as vaccination sites was because supply of the vaccine was “finite”. There are “logistical difficulties with having all pharmacies as vaccination sites – including vaccine transportation with time constraints, and of course providing sites with all the other equipment they need to operate effectively”, he added.

The requirement that a pharmacy-led vaccination site be able to give a minimum of 1,000 jabs a week – which had ruled out many smaller sites, leading to a C+D campaign to reverse the decision – was “a deliberate part of the strategy at the moment” in order to “make sure the through-put is there”, he said.

However, Mr Zawahi added: “As we get millions more doses coming through in the weeks and months to come […] it then becomes about reach – and I think community pharmacy has tremendous reach into those hard-to-reach communities – and convenience. Again, you tick those two boxes brilliantly, which is where I see the next iteration or the next chapter of this story heading towards.”

"Challenging" to set up sites

Earlier in the event, Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC) Simon Dukes chief executive had said that community pharmacy had “the potential for thousands of vaccine sites, not just hundreds.”

He added that PSNC had worked up a proposal for smaller sites to be able to vaccinate less than the 1,000 doses per week requirement, as “the sector is keen to help”.

Mr Zahawi said that there would be over 200 pharmacy-led vaccination sites by the end of the month (currently, there are 192), but the limiting factor remained the supply of the vaccine.

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens and Healthcare Distribution Association executive director Martin Sawer have previously indicated that the supply of the vaccine was the “rate-limiting factor” for vaccine rollout.

“It has been challenging to set up so many vaccination sites – no doubt,” Mr Zawahi remarked last night. “As Brigadier Prosser at one of the press conferences referred to it, it’s a bit like standing up a supermarket chain in a month and then growing it by 20% every week.”

Mr Zahawi also paid tribute to one of the first independent pharmacy-led sites to go live, Cullimore Chemists in Edgware – which he visited in January – stating that it had been “heartening” to see such “exceptional work”. He also made mention of the “innovative” work of community pharmacists in South Tyneside, who have been giving up their weekends to vaccinate at-risk housebound patients in their own homes.

He told delegates: “I want to recognise the immense contribution being made by you, the community pharmacy teams, especially in these unique and exceptional times. Your work is critical to the safe care of patients. Community pharmacists really are the local lifeline for patients and the public.”

PM: Pharmacists to get reimbursement “as soon as possible”

Meanwhile, in yesterday’s (February 10) daily COVID-19 briefing, prime minister Boris Johnson said that community pharmacies would be reimbursed “as soon as possible” for pandemic-related costs they had incurred.

During the government’s daily briefing from 10 Downing Street, Mr Johnson’s attention was drawn to the many pharmacies closing due to financial pressures. He was asked when the government intended to reimburse pharmacies for additional costs caused by the pandemic, and how many pharmacies he was happy to see close before the government intervened.

The prime minister responded: “I don’t want to see any pharmacies close. I think community pharmacies, high-street pharmacies, provide an absolutely outstanding resource for our country and its healthcare needs. And I’m particularly grateful to pharmacies now for what they’re doing as part of the vaccine effort.”

Mr Johnson added that he wanted to “make sure they are reimbursed as soon as possible. They play a vital role in helping us fight the pandemic and many, many other public health needs.”

Yesterday, the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) indicated that some pharmacists were considering resorting to strike action if the £370 million in loans given by the government to cover COVID-related costs were not written off by the Treasury.

“This is a desperate situation for many of our members, so it’s not surprising that you do hear people talking about some form of protest,” Andrew Lane, NPA chair, said. “But no one wants to let their patients down, so strike action is the last thing any pharmacist would want to do.”

A September 2020 report, commissioned by the NPA, predicted that 72% of pharmacies would be in debt by 2024. An NPA petition launched last year – calling on the government to forgive the debts – garnered nearly 40,000 signatures.

In November, PSNC asked the government to waive the £370 million in advance payments of COVID-19 funding made last year, a request that the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) said at the time it was “carefully considering”. The Negotiator doubled down on this request this week, accusing the government of “failing in their duty to protect the sector financially”.

Mr Dukes has said in recent weeks that the funding the sector receives from the government through NHS contracts is “not sustainable”, meaning more pharmacy closures were “inevitable”.

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