As the nation adjusts to this current phase of pandemic life, many retailers are carefully studying the government guidance to decide how they can reopen safely in the coming weeks and months. Employees and customers who are anxious about transmission rates will be looking to business owners for reassurance before being confident enough to venture out.
Whilst most high street retailers shut down in March, community pharmacies were asked to remain open. For the past seven weeks the UK’s pharmacies have, to the very best of their ability, kept their doors open to the public, supplying essential medicines and healthcare advice to their customers and patients. This has been by no means business as usual; pharmacies have had to adapt how they operate quickly to meet the many challenges they faced.
Even before lockdown we saw an immense surge of demand from patients. As the widely reported national stockpiling of hand sanitiser and toilet roll got underway, people also wanted to have enough of their regular, and sometimes not so regular, medicines in stock at home.
Throughout lockdown, our pharmacy teams have been there for everyone who needed us: the frail, the vulnerable, the sick and the scared. For the people who came in with serious gardening and DIY injuries but didn’t want to go to A&E. For the people who are now shielded and need their medicines delivered. As soon as the lockdown was announced on 23 March much of general practice changed how it engaged with patients, meaning that more people visited pharmacies with the healthcare concerns they might otherwise have sought help for elsewhere.
Our teams have often had to work longer hours to keep up with demand both in terms of volume of workload and to maintain safe environments for patients. As well as implementing new ways to maintain a two-metre distance and install physical screens on counters our pharmacies have need to be cleaned more to keep everyone safe.
We have also had to ask our customers and patients to change the way they use their pharmacy. No healthcare provider wants to see people queuing down the street but limiting the number of people inside the pharmacy was often the only solution to allow us to keep our doors open. Our teams too were neither immune to the disease nor the rules governing isolation and at times more than one in five pharmacy colleagues were not able to work. Yet still pharmacies kept on serving.
Unfortunately, we also saw an increase in unacceptable violence and aggression towards our teams. In mid-March I co-signed an open letter to the public asking people to treat our pharmacy teams as they would wish to be treated themselves. At the same time however, I know that countless pharmacy teams have been heartened by the number of customers who have shown their gratitude for their community pharmacy heroes with gifts and cards.
As well as the challenges we have faced in keeping going on the ground we have also had to address challenges faced elsewhere. When the lockdown was announced, we had to lobby fast and hard for the NHS and the government to confirm that pharmacy teams were included on the list of key workers, so their children could attend school, enabling them to keep working. We have also had to call for clarity on whether pharmacy team workers were eligible for the same death in service benefit as their other NHS colleagues.
As the lockdown developed, it became clear that the NHS was critically short of PPE, and at times the guidance for its use was less than clear, and on occasion, conflicting. Again, we had to work hard to be placed on the long list of essential parts of the system that required the PPE. In this situation the guidance from the government is to use strict adherence to social distancing, physical separation such as plastic screens, and self-isolation to make our workplaces safe.
But guidance alone cannot address the fundamental human need to feel safe. Often it is only the sight of healthcare teams responsibly using PPE that can do this. Without NHS support pharmacy businesses have needed to source their own supplies of PPE, to allow them to deliver NHS services and care. Since the lockdown, community pharmacy businesses have had to invest many millions of pounds to ensure that they can provide a safe environment for both patients and pharmacy workers alike.
So that we could keep our pharmacies running we also had to work hard to ensure that pharmacy workers could access testing. Without it, many pharmacy workers were having to self-isolate when they were in fact free from the virus and therefore safe to work. Even after pharmacy workers were added to the list of key workers eligible for testing, it was far from clear how anyone actually get tested. Thankfully now our teams can access testing, meaning more of our colleagues are able to get to work and to serve those who need their care and support.
As the spike in demand for prescriptions has subsided, we have been faced with new challenges, none more so than how to continue to maintain safe distances in what are traditionally small retail premises. We are seeing queues of people on the high street as pharmacies are forced to limit the numbers of people who can enter at any one time, much in the same way as the supermarkets are doing, but without the benefit of large carparks or covered areas. If other small retailers need to implement the same strict policies on social distancing, it is likely that more queues on the high street will start to merge.
Although there is much that is unknown about the road ahead, pharmacy teams have provided certainty and healthcare advice to communities across the UK throughout the pandemic. As we look back at this first phase of the fightback against Covid-19, and we all begin to look ahead to the future, I am immensely proud of how our community pharmacy teams have gone above and beyond in recent weeks to ensure the continued safe supply of medicines.