Discussions around the NHS test and trace service have been somewhat on-the-fence in the pharmacy sector, with opinions both for and against it. Under the government guidance, those who have been in contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 infection must self-isolate for 14 days. The service identifies who these contacts are.
The need to prevent another spike in COVID-19 cases drives the guidance, along with the ability of the government to map trends in the virus’s geographical spread. That said, whole pharmacy teams across the country could suffer should just one of their members be contacted through this NHS system.
The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has also highlighted the professional responsibility of pharmacy teams to comply with the service directions, but this does little to alleviate concerns about managing whole team absences and the continuity of service provision.
Between following a system that could wipe out our teams with one contact and otherwise risking unwittingly contributing to the spread by continuing to work post-exposure, we are stuck between a rock and a very hard place. And does the system have enough evidence to support it, given the possibility of asymptomatic presentation of infection?
For now, use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and rigorous hygiene measures remain cruical for pharmacy teams to keep going. Options for split-team working are limited, but in some cases it is possible to minimise the risk of closure. Inevitably, locums working across multiple pharmacies are both essential support mechanisms and potential virus spreaders. Locum pharmacists must not underestimate how pivotal they are to the success of community pharmacy in overcoming the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Inevitably, the impact of the service is yet to be seen and only time will tell with regards to its implications for pharmacy teams. I’m fortunate that as a pharmacist working part-time in general practice, I have the luxury of the ability to work from home at times.
Community pharmacy teams however, have always been and will continue to be frontline healthcare workers. The test and trace system, although designed to protect the public, might prove to be yet another difficulty for our teams to overcome. If pharmacy teams haven’t already looked at plans for business continuity, now would be a good time to start.
In the era of COVID-19, pharmacy has been tasked with choosing to sink or swim in a tsunami of challenges. And just as we have risen to meet the challenges of medicines shortages, lack of PPE and new delivery services, so we shall continue to battle the waves of uncertainty that threaten our ability to provide healthcare to the general public.
Alas, the NHS test and trace service exists and regardless of whether we believe it appropriate, we should prepare for the possible eventuality that our pharmacies need to open with entire teams isolating at home.
Laura Buckley is a locum and primary care network (PCN) pharmacist based in Hull