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Shambolic start of vaccination programmes suggests government’s inadequacy in learning pandemic lessons, says Rowlands MD

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Has the government in England learned nothing from the Covid-19 pandemic? Nigel Swift, Managing Director of Rowlands Pharmacy, part of Numark, the UK’s largest pharmacy membership association, asks reflecting on the disorderly launch of this year’s flu and Covid booster vaccination program as evidence to the contrary.

“Community pharmacies play a crucial role in ensuring eligible individuals can easily access their free NHS flu and Covid vaccinations,” Swift said, adding that delivering this essential service necessitates pharmacy staff allocating time for preparation and appointment scheduling.

“Just a few weeks ago, NHSE informed us that the vaccination program would be postponed until October, prompting pharmacies to plan accordingly and notify patients,” he said. “However, NHSE has now reversed its decision and set the program to commence on Sept. 11. Pharmacy recommended an earlier start, but NHSE opted for a delay instead, resulting in avoidable problems.”

On Aug. 30, NHSE announced plans to move up the start of the autumn vaccination drive in England to September 11, deviating from the initial October schedule, citing concerns about a new Covid-19 variant.

One key lesson from the COVID pandemic was the importance of preparedness. So, Swift asked, why was NHSE not prepared for this year’s flu season?

The Rowlands MD, however, added that pharmacies will rise to the challenge, but this inevitably causes confusion for patients and disrupts the provision of other patient services. Rowlands operates more than 400 pharmacies across the UK.

“Health Ministers in England express a desire to expand the utilisation of community pharmacies, a position Numark has long advocated for,” said Swift, emphasising the need for a collaborative approach to plan service delivery within realistic timelines.

“Adding last-minute demands to an already stretched pharmacy sector is not practical and is unacceptable,” he said. “NHSE’s insistence on immediate action demonstrates a lack of respect for, or understanding of, community pharmacy as the third pillar of patient access to NHS care services.”

Swift voiced equal concern that Ministers and NHSE officials seem to lack an understanding of the logistics required for a successful flu vaccination programme through community pharmacies.

He questioned why NHSE, having been aware for months of the challenging nature of this year’s flu season, allowed for last-minute disarray. He also pondered whether it was an attempt to generate media attention as being “ahead of the game.”

“If the Government in England is truly committed to a ‘pharmacy first’ approach, then it needs to stop treating the sector as a Cinderella service,” he further said.

“An ad-hoc ‘we demand today, you do it tomorrow’ approach makes no sense if we are to deliver consistent patient care,” Swift added.

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