Communities will have an important part to play
Dozens of small and mediumsized pharmacies in Sunderland could be utilised to speed up the coronavirus vaccination rollout, experts have said.
Around 200 pharmacy sites in England including branches of High Street chain Boots are lined up to start delivering jabs to priority patient groups.
But industry bodies have called on the Government to widen the pool to the thousands more community pharmacists across the UK who are ready and willing to play their part in vaccinating the nation.
Office for National Statistics figures show there are around 55 pharmacies in Sunderland.
They were among 440 pharmacies across the wider North East region – a resource the Royal Pharmaceutical Society says is going to waste.
Not every pharmacy would be equipped to administer coronavirus jabs – in the age of social distancing, very small premises that have low limits on the number of customers that can enter at one time may struggle.
But the RPS says a huge number of the more than 11,000 chemists across the UK could help and want to play their part – but are currently locked outside the process.
Of the pharmacies in Sunderland, 35 were micro businesses employing fewer than 10 people, while 25 were small businesses, with a workforce of between 10 and 49. The numbers have been rounded to the nearest five.
In a letter to pharmacists in November, NHS England and NHS Improvement said “community pharmacy will have an important role to play in a potential Covid-19 vaccination programme”.
The letter set out criteria for sites to be considered as vaccination centres, which included a requirement that they can vaccinate at least 1,000 people per week.
Robbie Turner, director of the RPS, said this excluded many chemists that were otherwise a hub of their community, such as those in rural villages where residents could struggle to access other venues.
With pharmacies particularly concentrated in more deprived areas, Mr Turner added that failing to utilise their expertise and standing in the community risked exacerbating existing health inequalities, particularly among black and minority ethnic communities.
Pharmacies that meet the NHS England criteria are currently able to signal their interest in joining the rollout.
The health body says more will be brought into the programme as extra supplies of the vaccine become available, depending on how the rollout progresses.
But pharmacist Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, said: “We’ve got all of these community pharmacies that can get involved and do that and we believe that every pharmacy could do about 20 or 30 vaccines a day with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“Why do they need to wait a number of weeks to see how these sites will perform before involving community pharmacies?”
An NHS spokesperson said: “Pharmacies are already working with GPs to deliver the vaccine in many areas of the country.
“As more supply becomes available, community pharmacists able to administer large numbers of vaccine will play a role in the NHS’s phased vaccination programme, the biggest in the health service’s history.”
Every pharmacy could do about 20 or 30 vaccines a day