Boris Johnson addressed the nation on Sunday (May 11) with a sketch of the Government’s plan for getting England out of lockdown and returning, step-by-step, to some kind of normality.
The political, public health and economic judgments behind his speech and subsequent guidance are fiendishly complex and the stakes are very high – including for pharmacies.
Pharmacies are not only a key part of the NHS response to COVID-19 but also one of the few types of businesses that have stayed open during the crisis, so we have a unique perspective on the lockdown landscape.
As a pharmacist, I don’t want pharmacy colleagues or pharmacy patients to be exposed to greater risk by any premature easing of lockdown measures. This virus has already killed thousands of people, many of whom were regular visitors to pharmacies over the years. Tragically, several pharmacists and pharmacy staff have died, too.
If it really is a simple choice between lives and livelihoods, saving lives has to come first.
Yet nothing is simple about this pandemic.
Lockdown itself can be bad for general health and wellbeing, especially if it means a lack of exercise or missing out on regular appointments with a healthcare professional to manage long terms conditions. What could a continuation of strict lockdown measures mean for the future health and mortality of people with diabetes, respiratory conditions and heart disease for example?
Many people in these groups would normally see health professionals for regular check-ups. Cancer deaths could also rise, if people fail to get early symptoms checked-out, for fear of venturing out of the house. There’s the wide realm of mental health to consider as well.
There are bound to be knock-on effects for pharmacies and other NHS services due to changes to official advice and the way the public responds to that advice. For example, if there’s a spike in demand for face masks for use by the general public as they begin to encounter one another in greater numbers and in closer proximity, what could this mean for the stock available to health care workers on the front line?
Many pharmacies struggle to obtain adequate supplies as it is. The official guidance makes a distinction between ‘face coverings’ for the general public and the ‘face masks’ for use by NHS staff and pharmacies, but can we be sure that such a distinction will be widely understood and respected?
Any sustainable route out of lockdown must surely involve widespread access to testing. It’s still uncertain what role pharmacies may play in the supply of tests, but the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) is exploring options. The same can be said of a vaccination programme for COVID-19, should that eventually emerge. In earlier pandemics, such as swine flu in 2009, pharmacies have also been distribution points for anti-viral medicines, and might expect to be again. But no such medicine yet exists for this coronavirus.
The NPA is now involved in post lockdown scenario planning, around testing in particular, but also considering many other lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis to date. In the light of the profound changes of recent months, in pharmacy and in society more broadly, how should we proceed in the future? We will therefore be inviting members to a series of virtual forums to contribute to our thinking about the ‘new normal’.
Andrew Lane is chair of the National Pharmacy Association