This morning, health secretary Matt Hancock sent this tweet:
I’m glad to be able to confirm that community pharmacists are included in our death in service benefits. Because they are employed in a different way, it is arranged in a different way, but pharmacists are a vital part of our NHS family. They are of course covered— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) April 30, 2020
The easy response is to welcome this news. But it’s really important that we see the small print – far too often one man’s “we’ve supported community pharmacy with an extra £300 million” turns out to be “we’re lending you your own money”.
We need to know whether pharmacy support staff are covered, because without that confirmation we need to continue to push. We also need to understand whether bereaved families are going to have to prove that their deceased loved one had contact with someone confirmed to have contracted COVID-19. Many patients with the virus are asymptomatic, and the ones that are symptomatic have so far largely not been tested.
Proving this would be very difficult to do in a pharmacy setting because of the sheer number of people coming through our doors. Are we supposed to keep a list of every patient, volunteer, customer, and delivery driver that we see in one day? But, most of all, we need to know how we got into this discussion in the first place and how we can stop it from happening again.
This is not the first time that the third-largest healthcare profession has been missed off a list like this during the pandemic. Remember the key worker debacle? In his tweet, Mr Hancock said pharmacists “are employed in a different way, it is arranged in a different way”. Well, it might come as a surprise to the health secretary but pharmacists are paid in a similar way to GPs and dentists – who were eligible for the payout from the beginning. I’m afraid, Mr Hancock, I’m not buying that excuse.
We must have a new relationship with the Department of Health and Social Care (DH), one that isn’t delegated to the office junior, but a meaningful relationship that is commensurate with the fact that in England we see 1.6 million patients every day and are a cornerstone of primary care.
We have to use ‘death-gate’ as a turning point, to ensure that this never happens again. That has to begin with someone taking accountability for how this happened in the first place.
Nowhere within the DH board is there a community pharmacist with recent, relevant experience in practice. Until there is, we may be doomed by the groupthink demonstrated by too many people with similar backgrounds and life experiences. They have to see the world through the eyes of the patients who use and need us every day.
Mike Hewitson owns Beaminster Pharmacy in Dorset