COVID-19 has hit the world like an earthquake. It has caused panic the world over and overwhelmed public health services. Pharmacists, as frontline health workers, are at extremely high risk of contracting it. There’s already been more than one pharmacist death and many more have symptoms.
Pharmacy teams sometimes work with no personal protective equipment (PPE). In some cases not only have we not had access to PPE, but I have heard of companies that have threatened staff with disciplinary action if they use the equipment as it would “scare the patients”. You would think large companies would care enough about their staff to go the extra mile and source PPE, but you’d be wrong.
While many employed pharmacists are off work due to COVID-19, the locum workforce are filling in these vital positions – ensuring pharmacies can continue to operate and support patients.
Due to the unprecedented health crisis, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) temporarily registered over 6,000 pharmacists and technicians who had left the register. Clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are sending pharmacists to support community pharmacies and companies have redeployed their independent prescriber pharmacists to the frontline.
The GPhC has relaxed supervision regulation to allow already dispensed items to be handed out in emergency cases where a pharmacist has had to leave due to having COVID-19 symptoms. On top of this, many pharmacies are now closing on weekends and opening shorter hours during the week. A lot of previously 100-hour pharmacies are now only open for 40 hours a week.
These factors have led to many locums not being able to find work in recent weeks, even when they are available.
Adding to the short-term surplus of locums, the GPhC statement on March 19 about some locum pharmacists “profiteering” from the pandemic has given many companies an excuse to take the statement out of context and report locums for asking for rates that were previously accepted as normal.
I’ve even seen emails from a director of one of the largest locum agencies in the UK threatening locums who attempted to negotiate higher rates. They reported a number of locums to the GPhC for asking for higher rates.
While I would never condone profiteering, I do sympathise with the pharmacists asking for fair rates who are willing to drive for hours to work under heavy pressure with very little staff support, no PPE and the risk of contracting COVID-19.
No locum pharmacist should be reported to a regulator for this. Locum rates have never been under the GPhC’s remit, and nor should it have commented on the matter in such a way. As frontline health workers supporting patients and the nation's health what we need is the regulator to be more supportive during these times.
Employee pharmacists receive sick pay while self-isolating. They have job security, bonuses and a lot of companies have been increasing pay during the pandemic. But while their average salaries rise, locum pharmacists have seen their hourly rate decrease or stagnate year after year.
According to the 889 locums who responded to the Pharmacist Cooperative survey that ran between April 2019 and April 2020, the national average for this period was £28.67 with the hourly rate ranging from £19 to £90. Although this rate has slightly increased since 2015, the rise is not in line with inflation. Compared with what an average locum was earning 10 years ago, the salary is still low.
So, while it's easy to vilify locums as greedy and profiteering, if we scratch the surface it's clear to see they are still being used as an easy scapegoat in an industry with much larger problems. To deal with those we need a strong united profession that is willing to speak truth to power and put personal interests aside.
Tohidul Islam is a locum pharmacist based in Manchester and founder of social network The Pharmacist Cooperative