NHS contract tracers are “not taking into account” the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in pharmacies, unlike in other healthcare settings, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), said in a statement earlier this week (October 7).
Gordon Hockey, director of operations and support at PSNC, said pharmacy owners are “increasingly reporting” that the NHS test and trace service is "causing additional staffing pressures by suggesting that whole teams must self-isolate”.
The PSNC said community pharmacies are being “treated differently from other healthcare settings”, resulting in cases where “one pharmacy staff member tests positive, and the whole team is then told to go into self-isolation”.
Healthcare workers in settings such as hospitals and GP surgeries are subject to “specialist contact tracing controls” by contract tracers, taking into account any preventative measures – such as the wearing of PPE – in place to stop the spread of infection.
The PSNC is therefore “seeking parity for community pharmacies”, Mr Hockey said “Pharmacy teams will struggle to continue to maintain vital services for patients if NHS test and trace does not take into account the COVID-safe measures, including the use of PPE, that have been put in place to help to prevent transmission between co-workers,” he stressed.
NHS COVID-19 app
The test and trace service uses data from the NHS COVID-19 app, which launched in England and Wales on September 24, to see when individuals have been in contact with one another.
The app uses bluetooth to facilitate contact tracing – which advises users to self-isolate if they have been in close contact with a confirmed case.
However, NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE&I) advises that healthcare professionals pause the contact tracing capability on the app while at work in certain buildings or circumstances.
This is because the app does not take into account extra safety precautions that may be in place, such as teams working behind a protective screen or wearing medical grade PPE.
Patients could be “unable to access their medicines”
The PSNC today (October 9) sent a letter to pharmacy minister Jo Churchill flagging that the problems pharmacy teams are experiencing with the test and trace system could “pose a potential threat to the timely supply of medicines to local communities”.
The letter, co-signed by the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp), the Company Chemists’ Association (CCA) and the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) said “some contact tracers are classifying pharmacies as retail settings, rather than healthcare establishments”.
This is causing them to “apply different rules than they do for GP practices”, the industry organisations added.
“We are concerned that if this continues…we will soon have a situation where people will be unable to access their medicines because of widespread temporary (two-week) pharmacy closures,” the letter said. The pharmacy bodies said they “have asked for an urgent response”.
Problems accessing testing
The PSNC ealier this week highlighted further complications around access to testing for pharmacies, including some contractors finding it difficult to register as employers of essential workers.
“Currently, asymptomatic pharmacy staff asked to self-isolate cannot get tested to check if they are negative so they can return to work more quickly,” the PSNC explained.
“This is all impacting on the continuity of service provision and therefore reducing patient access to essential medicines,” it said.
PSNC has called for contractors to escalate cases where a member of their team has tested positive and they are not satisfied with the recommendations made by a contact tracer to their Public Health England local health protection team.
It urged contractors to “be persistent”, ask for “the mitigations in place at the pharmacy to be taken into account” and “involve the NHSE&I regional team or local office”.