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Northern Ireland’s community pharmacies are under severe pressure as a result of the threat posed by the coronavirus, COVID-19.

As of today (Thursday March 19) there have been 68 cases confirmed in the province.

A straw poll of pharmacists carried out by Pharmacy in Focus clearly indicated that the province’s community pharmacies are taking the brunt of the fall-out from the threat from COVID-19, with one pharmacist after another reporting an overwhelming upsurge in repeat prescriptions.

Eoghan O’Brien from Bannside Pharmacy in Portglenone said that he and his team had never experienced anything like it.

‘Last week,’ he told PiF, ‘it was like Christmas in the pharmacy and I told the staff that it would die down, but this week has been even worse. The closure of the GP surgeries has meant that people are ringing their local surgery, asking for scripts for repeat medications. On occasions these have not even been due and we’ve had to keep a close eye out for these.

‘The situation has been so bad that even though we were to have been closed yesterday for St Patrick’s Day, I and two members of staff came in simply to get everything ready for today and it was as well that we did as we have been absolutely slaughtered today.’

In addition to the upsurge in business, Eoghan, like many other pharmacy owners across the province, is trying to adhere to the government’s advice on staying safe.

‘It was crazy in here last week,’ he continued. ‘At one point there were about 20 patients standing shoulder to shoulder in the pharmacy. I have to be mindful of the health and safety of my staff as well as patients and so I taped markers onto the floor to indicate where people could stand to, for example, observe the two-metre recommended distance from others.’

Pharmacists across the province have adopted their own safety measures.

In Randalstown, pharmacist Edel McMahon closed off entry to the pharmacy, with staff operating across tables close to the door, while in East Belfast, James McKay of McKays Pharmacy created an ‘scripts in’, ‘scripts out’ system which you can view in the video by clicking below;

CLICK TO VIEW VIDEO

Gerard Greene, Chief Executive of Community Pharmacy NI, says that pharmacy owners need to protect the health and safety of both themselves, their staff and their patients.

‘In the past number of days,’ he said, ‘we have witnessed an unprecedented surge on our pharmacy services in all local communities. Tens of thousands more people have flocked to pharmacies on a daily basis, as the COVID-19 crisis has deepened.

‘Community pharmacists are front line health workers who must be protected from getting sick, so they can continue to deliver a service to those who need it. As a result, we will be changing how we work in community pharmacy and would ask for public support to manage this. There will be significantly reduced access to pharmacies. Access will be restricted to keep low numbers inside pharmacies. New counters are also being put in place in many pharmacies to help manage social distancing requirements. Please be patient with these changes and work with us.

‘Pharmacists will ensure everyone gets their medicines and that supplies are managed safely. Our absolute priority is the health of our patients and our staff. Be patient with us and other healthcare workers as we continue to deliver this service in extremely challenging times.’

Gerard Greene’s words were echoed by Peter Rice, Chair of UCA-NI Ltd.

‘These are unprecedented circumstances,’ he told PiF, ‘and community pharmacy is at the frontline of primary care, with pharmacy teams pulling out all the stops to ensure that patients receive their medication in time.

‘Patient safety is the top priority and ensuring staff are protected so that they can continue to provide services for as long as possible is paramount. GPs and pharmacies have quickly responded to the risks identified and most have brought in new measures to help with social distancing to help reduce the risk to patients and staff. Many people may find this uncomfortable, but we can assure patients that it is being done in their best interests and we ask everyone to be as patient as possible as we are all adjusting to this new reality.

‘The situation is very fast moving and agencies are finding it difficult to keep pace with queries from pharmacies. Pharmacies have now been provided with a PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) kit for staff use if required, but there are many issues under consideration including how to safely scale up deliveries, instalment dispensing, how to manage with reduced staffing, dealing with sick absence, and so on.

‘UCA will be working alongside CPNI to provide pharmacies with the support they need particularly on HR and business-related issues.

‘UCA is also co-ordinating a list of PSNI registrants willing to provide community pharmacy sessions as part of the response to COVID-19. If you can offer some time should the number of pharmacists available to work fall significantly, please contact Natalie Mulholland on natalie@uca.org.uk or via 028 9065 6576.’

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