The approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency was a welcome next step in our fight to control this terrible disease. Mass vaccination is our only route to return to some form of normality. Community pharmacy must be at the forefront of that effort.
The government’s initial approach, involving a “limited number” of community pharmacies in the vaccination programme, was incomprehensible. It was a potential missed opportunity in using the sector to help achieve the governement's goal of vaccinating almost 14 million people by mid-February.
The announcement this week that more community pharmacies would be involved in the vaccinations “in due course”, according to the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, is a step in the right direction, but more detail is still needed. How many more pharmacies will be involved and when?
Community pharmacies have successfully delivered flu vaccinations for many years. People trust us to provide the protection they need. There are over 11,400 pharmacies in England that are ready, able and willing to provide the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Unlike the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine, there are fewer storage constraints preventing patients from getting the former jab at their convenience, at their local pharmacy.
I estimate that community pharmacy in England has the ability to vaccinate around 1.3 million people against COVID-19 every week. Throughout the pandemic, community pharmacy has been there, not just to dispense medication, but to provide professional medical advice when access to GPs and A&E departments was understandably restricted.
I cannot see how the government will meet its mass vaccination targets without utilising fully the capabilities and local reach that pharmacies offer.
Nadhim Zahawi, the minister in charge of the government’s COVID-19 vaccine response plans, has said that pharmacy will be involved in the vaccination programme. That is welcome, but it comes with red tape, which in effect probably excludes your local pharmacy from vaccinating you against COVID-19.
In November, NHS England & Improvement insisted that pharmacy-led sites must be able to provide around 1,000 doses per week, seven days a week, 8am-8pm, which is clearly beyond the capability of most community pharmacies.
Involving only a limited number of pharmacies misses the point that not everyone has easy access to a vaccine site. The early distribution plans left one in four people in England in an area with no vaccination centre, while eight million faced a round trip of more than 10 miles to get a jab, The Sunday Times estimated on January 3.
Community pharmacy has an easily accessible presence in every UK community. I hope and trust the government will rethink its approach to the sector’s role in vaccine delivery. I also hope it will set out plans to revive community pharmacy and ensure we do not see further closures that only serve to increase pressure on an overstretched NHS.
Steve Anderson is managing director of Phoenix UK
Sign the petition to allow all community pharmacies in England to offer COVID-19 vaccinations here