Italy has confirmed it will close all shops except food stores and pharmacies as part of its lockdown to manage the spread of coronavirus. Crises like this are a stark reminder that, ultimately, food and medicines are what keep people alive.
It’s important in any country, including in the UK, that pharmacies stay open to keep the country moving during a public health emergency. In addition to meeting the increased demand for advice on coronavirus, pharmacies like mine are also doing our everyday job of keeping people well. We’re treating common illnesses, helping people manage long-term medical conditions and safely dispensing prescriptions. By providing vital frontline support, we’re absorbing pressure that would otherwise fall on other parts of the system facing extra workload due to the outbreak.
I was recently interviewed by my local BBC radio station alongside GP who explained he is now doing lots of his work by computer from home as a coronavirus risk-reduction measure. Community pharmacists can’t necessarily do the same, as we need to stay open and accessible to all – except, of course, to people who suspect they may have the virus.
However, we need help so we can continue to help others. The National Pharmacy Association (NPA) has provided some excellent practical resources, including detailed guidance on business continuity, which I have studied carefully for use in my own pharmacies.
As a member of the board, I know that the NPA has also suggested that the government takes a number of contingency measures to help independent pharmacies stay operational as businesses and effective as frontline providers of patient care. As coronavirus could exacerbate existing cash flow problems, can NHS payments to pharmacy businesses be brought forward to cover shortfalls, for example? This help in the short term would be very welcome.
Unfortunately, community pharmacy in parts of the UK, notably England and Northern Ireland, is on its knees after years of underfunding. So, when this all finally blows over, the government should also address the long-term resourcing of this vital part of the health service frontline. It should consider the future resilience of the healthcare system and the capacity to manage future public health emergencies.
Olivier Picard is an NPA board member and pharmacy contractor