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‘Rising rates and a drop in demand are good for locums’

"The locums I spoke to in 2020 were not charging extortionate rates"

Shifts in demand for pharmacy locums and their changing hourly rates reflect the risks that locums took during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, says Reece Samani

In my position as founder of locum booking platform The Locum App, I have the pleasure of speaking to a lot of the locums who provide vital care in community pharmacies across the country.

As a result, I heard a lot in 2020 about how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting my locum friends and colleagues, and in particular how much effort they had put in to help our industry and our nation through this difficult time.

The conversations I had got me thinking about many unique aspects of last year, but also about how the industry might change and the lessons we can learn from 2020. Given all that, I was eagerly awaiting the results of the C+D Salary Survey 2020, to see if what I had heard and the beliefs I had formed matched up with the data C+D collected from 192 locums.

The first two things that jumped out at me from the 2020 results were the modest rise in the average hourly rate for locums, up 35p on 2019’s rate to £22.34, and the fact that 43% of respondents said they had found it harder to find work in 2020.

Unfortunately, there was a point last year when a lot of debate surrounded a minority of locums who had requested a significant increase in hourly rates after the start of the pandemic. The GPhC even felt the need to condemn locums, warning them against “taking selfish advantage of” and “profiteering” from the crisis.

Locum rates have been a hot topic since long before the pandemic, but I felt that, in this case, the discussion was slightly overblown. The locums I spoke to in 2020 were not demanding extortionate rate increases, if indeed they were asking for any increase at all.

And this is backed up by C+D’s survey. If all locums had been “profiteering” or cancelling at the last minute to try to get better rates elsewhere, as some have been accused of doing, we would have seen a bigger spike in hourly pay.

The fact that locums reported less work being available is noteworthy. Some pharmacists I’ve heard from mentioned there were fewer shifts available in 2020, especially during the summer months when pharmacists who would normally be away on holiday stayed at home to help their communities through a tough time.

The fact that the survey suggests demand for locums went down but rates rose slightly is a good thing in my book. When there is less demand and more supply, logic would dictate that rates would drop. I believe that did not happen because pharmacy owners were conscious of the increased risks that locums took to continue to serve the community last year and did the honourable thing in maintaining, or even increasing, pay.

Another number that really caught my eye was that 52% of respondents said they had been forced to complete services when they “felt it was unsafe to do so” over the previous year because of insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) or lack of space for social distancing, a real shame. I think this may have happened more because of unavailability of PPE than negligence from pharmacy owners. But again, the phenomenon tallies with what I was hearing.

Having to complete services unsafely was not an issue everywhere. However, I was told by a locum colleague that at the start of the pandemic, some pharmacies struggled to get hold of sufficient PPE for their staff, temporary or permanent, as everybody rushed to buy it. As another locum colleague succinctly put it when I asked her about PPE provision in different places: “Some were on it, others weren’t.”

I like to think this issue was resolved towards the end of 2020 with the increase in government provision of PPE. It is especially important that PPE is widely available given that pharmacists are now being asked to provide more face-to-face services, like flu jabs and potentially COVID-19 vaccines.

So, last year was one full of unprecedented challenges, but perhaps full of lessons too. The C+D Salary Survey 2020 has made that even clearer to me than it was before.

Reece Samani is CEO of The Locum App

C+D will publish more findings on pay and working conditions in community pharmacy throughout February, which will be available on the C+D Salary Survey 2020 hub.

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