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350 community pharmacies to join COVID vax rollout in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's chief pharmaceutical officer Cathy Harrison speaking at the Celtic Conference
Northern Ireland's chief pharmaceutical officer Cathy Harrison speaking at the Celtic Conference

Northern Ireland’s chief pharmaceutical officer has revealed that 350 community pharmacies will be joining the country’s COVID vaccine rollout in the next few weeks.

Speaking at yesterday’s (March 11) Celtic Conference, Cathy Harrison said that “in the next two weeks we are going to see […] community pharmacies stepping in to become part of COVID vaccination services” in addition to GPs and hospital pharmacists.

In a statement to C+D, Ms Harrison clarified that arrangements were “being finalised” for these pharmacies to join the vaccination programme “by the end of March”.

Last week, head of the vaccination programme in Northern Ireland Patricia Donnelly said that a “boost in supplies” of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine would mean pharmacies would be able to join the programme, which she heralded as “very welcome news”.

The number of community pharmacies set to join the programme accounts for a massive proportion of the 531 participating pharmacies in Northern Ireland. By comparison, in England, as of March 5 there were 224 pharmacy-led vaccination sites out of more than 11,000 pharmacies at the time of writing.

COVID-19 in NI

Reflecting on how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected the sector in Northern Ireland, Ms Harrison said that attempts to return to business as usual after the initial surge of cases in April, as well as subsequent waves, “have proved quite difficult” and “our services are pretty much still in a response mode even now”.

“We definitely saw our first signs of extreme difficulties in community pharmacy, and there were incredible pressures in our community pharmacies right across Northern Ireland from the start of the first surge. Some pharmacies were on the risk of collapse in those early weeks,” she added.

Noting that one year ago today, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, Ms Harrison remarked that Northern Ireland “already [had] a health and social care system that was under extreme pressure”.

“Economic constraint and three years without any political leadership here – as well as chronic workforce pressures – had resulted in the worst emergency department waiting times and overall patient experience in the whole of the UK.”

In response to these pre-existing challenges, the Northern Ireland Department of Health had developed “a major program of transformation” for the sector, she said.

Still “an absolutely enormous amount to do”

Looking forward to the coming year, Ms Harrison said she had three key areas of improvement in the year to come: “One is we need to grow the workforce because we don’t have enough pharmacists and pharmacy technicians,” she said, adding that she was “encouraged” by the increased number of pharmacy graduates in the past year.

Secondly, she welcomed the planned reforms to pharmacy training, which will see the current pre-registration year integrated into the MPharm course, resulting in a five-year training and education period ending with a foundation year.

But she added that “without effective plans for deployment and commissioning and utility of pharmacy, there’s no point training and having pharmacists. We’ve been down that road before where we’ve had plenty of graduates and we haven’t had the highly function roles for them to go into.”

Have you expressed an interest to join the COVID-19 vaccine rollout?

John Ellis, Community pharmacist

A UK wide rollout with the AZ vaccine would make sense.

C A, Community pharmacist

Does that mean more pharmacies in Northern Ireland are doing it than in England? Or certainly a higher percentage of the total?

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