It was a quiet Saturday morning in February 2020 and a woman walked into my pharmacy with a terrible cough. Alongside the usual questions, I asked her for her travel history. She had come from Denmark in the previous 10 days.
Even though I knew Denmark wasn’t one of the countries that was on “the list” to look out for back then, her symptoms seemed unusual, including an extreme cough, fatigue and fever spanning over a week. She even knew about COVID-19 but had decided to pop in to see us anyway.
As soon as she left, I called Public Health England (PHE). I felt I needed to report this woman’s symptoms and see if any COVID-19 cases had emerged from the other passengers on her flight from Denmark. The PHE gentleman did not take me seriously. He said: “Madam, I don’t think what has happened in Italy will happen here.” Those words still haunt me today.
What happened to pharmacies after that was like sleep paralysis – a nightmare you could not wake up from. We could not close shop and run virtual clinics like the GPs. We had to be the tangible source of healthcare and take over the day-to-day health work from everyone else. Overnight, pharmacists became dentists, doctors, opticians and psychiatrists rolled into one stressed NHS entity.
The incessant phone calls from distressed patients who were unable to get access to healthcare was simply unfathomable. Community Pharmacist Consultation Service (CPCS) referrals became even more obscure than before. Everyone wanted a delivery. Staff started to feel the impacts of the stress and it was the contractor’s responsibility to keep them well and safe, with minimal financial help from external bodies.
After closing time, we worked every day to finish the workload while all my staff – and even their offspring – were delivering medicines. Even the most resilient of us started to crack.
I remember staff not eating all day, as we just couldn’t stop working. One day we all forgot about a huge fridge line order worth hundreds of pounds that was left sitting outside the fridge. I could feel the stress bubbling away, but I couldn’t think about financial losses right now – we had patients to deal with like we always do.
Fast forward 11 months and nothing has changed. It’s shocking that we do all the work, yet any cash advances given to us are still a loan. The government has made it a near-impossible task to let pharmacies vaccinate for COVID-19 like they do with the flu. The authorities have even let buses get used as vaccinating hubs and non-clinical settings like places of worship, but not pharmacies.
It’s clear to me as a contractor that the government does not see us as part of the NHS, and perhaps never will. We’ve delivered (literally!) and now it seems we will have to return the ‘gifted’ cash from last year.
We don’t have the money lying around, so we will have to draw from our government COVID-19 Bounce Back Loans or cut the hours of yet another much-needed staff member. The cogs keep turning in pharmacy, but we don’t ever seem to move.
The financial deficit from years back is now hitting contractors harder with all the extra costs incurred from the pandemic. Volunteer medicines delivery drivers were never going to last. Even though some payment for deliveries is welcome, it is simply not enough.
Pharmacists have always gone the extra mile but it’s about time we got some fuel from the government so we can keep going. Drug prices are rising again, profits have dropped, staff are falling ill and emergency staff are being hired at extra costs. Pharmacies just keep digging deeper into their own pockets to keep everything running.
I actually felt that maybe now, after a major global pandemic, our efforts would finally get noticed. Unbelievably, it seems the government still cannot see our worth and all that we have done during the hardest time in recent history.
The Contractor is an independent pharmacy owner in England
Read C+D’s feature on the impact of stress on pharmacy contractors in 2020