As we reach the anniversary of the first Covid lockdown in this country, Olivier Picard, owner of Lane End Pharmacy, discusses the challenges they faced:

Coronavirus showed us all how quickly life can change and this certainly applies to your local pharmacies, which stepped up to do their duty – and more – during the pandemic.

A year on from when the virus hit our shores, pharmacy teams across the country are weary, but proud of their work on the NHS frontline and determined to ‘keep calm and carry on’.

With GP surgeries, opticians and dentists forced to suspend services or provide care remotely, many patients have turned to pharmacy teams for face-to-face help in the community. By November 2020, over a third of people had gone to their pharmacy for advice because their GP was unable to see them face-to-face due to Covid-19 safety measures at the surgery.

As the virus took off, Newdays Pharmacy in Lane End had to juggle ever busier, longer and more stressful days. In March 2020, a survey by the National Pharmacy Association estimated that pharmacies dispensed between a quarter and a third more prescriptions compared with the previous month. The number of home deliveries provided by pharmacies more than doubled in that time – some reported a 300% increase. Phone calls to pharmacies tripled over that month, with all pharmacies reporting an increase in working hours that often required them to hire locum staff to manage the workload.

Perhaps inevitably, there was a surge in demand for medicines and the public began to worry about shortages. By and large, pharmacies (and the rest of the supply chain) were able to keep the flow of medicines coming. It relied on people being responsible and only buying the medicines and supplies that they needed at that moment to treat themselves and their families. We also asked patients who take medicines for a long-term medical condition to order repeat medication in plenty of time, to avoid unnecessary delays.

The vast majority of patients were magnificent throughout, and pharmacies were inundated with offers of support from managing queues to delivering medicines. We cannot thank those people enough!

In the early days of the first lockdown, pharmacies had to think quickly about how to manage the flow of patients. Solutions were devised such as queuing systems and floor markings as well as putting up perspex screens to protect staff and patients. It was strange then, strangely normal now.

From April 2020, pharmacies began delivering medicines to the ‘shielded’ population as part of an NHS scheme. There were over 400,000 medicines deliveries in that first month.

A year on and, thanks to the vaccines, there is now light at the end of the tunnel. It has been wonderful to see many pharmacists offer to become involved in the vaccination programme – a must-win battle against the virus.

Success for vaccinations is not only about total numbers receiving jabs, but also the reach into communities, including certain ethnic minority groups. The public has a high level of trust in their local pharmacies and that can be an important factor in overcoming doubts and misapprehensions about Covid-19 vaccines – including within some BAME communities where take-up has been lower.

In addition pharmacies are now able to offer Covid-19 testing, another vital tool.

Covid-19 has underlined the key role pharmacies have as part of the NHS family. Pharmacists have worked closely with other professionals, such as doctors and nurses, to provide the best possible care as part of the local healthcare team.

The pandemic has also shown the importance of having a vibrant network of pharmacies operating close to where people live, work and shop. How on earth would the NHS have coped with the pressure otherwise?

After all this, it is frustrating that pharmacies are still having to argue for decent funding. Many pharmacies are running deficits and there is a clear injustice in the way pharmacies have been financially penalised for staying open during the pandemic. We have incurred significant extra costs to keep services going over the last 12 months, which have not yet been reimbursed.

But we are delighted at the reaction of the public to our efforts. People recognise that pharmacy teams across the country have stepped up and saved lives. A National Pharmacy Association survey shows that 89% of people believe pharmacies are playing an essential role in the Covid-19 crisis.

At Newdays Pharmacy, we will continue to do our utmost for our patients and communities, who have been through so much and deserve nothing less.

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