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Exclusive: Over a third of pharmacy staff have self-isolated

Over a third of pharmacy staff in the UK have had to self-isolate due to concerns they may be infected with Covid-19, a new survey suggests.

The finding comes from the Pharmacy Magazine/Independent Community Pharmacist coronavirus survey of 449 community pharmacists, conducted over the weekend of March 28-29.

Pharmacists reported an average pre-pandemic staff headcount of seven, but said that on average 2.5 staff members (36 per cent) in their pharmacy have had to self-isolate. This rose to 39 per cent in independent pharmacies.

Many reported having to take on additional staff or increase their use of locums to make up shortfalls, with the average pharmacist reporting a current staff headcount of six.

Rising staff costs were a concern for most - particularly independents - while a tenth of respondents felt their pharmacy would not be able to sustain the wage bill for much longer.

Burnout

These staffing issues come at a time of unprecedented workload and rising abuse towards pharmacy staff.

One pharmacist commented: “The workload is immense with reduced staffing levels... [it is a] huge burden to front line staff to pick up the pieces.” Another said staff were "beginning to get burnt out".

A number of pharmacists spoke of an urgent need for testing to be rolled out. One said: “[There is] no testing so staff have had to stay off when they could have been at work if they tested negative.”

Dramatic rise in safety measures

The findings point to a dramatic rise in safety measures being implemented compared to a first survey carried out a fortnight previously.

Whereas two weeks ago less than a fifth of pharmacists reported taking precautions other than disinfecting surfaces and having a quarantined area, now most are adopting strict safety measures.

Eighty-one per cent said their pharmacy is enforcing social distancing, while 78 per cent are reducing the number of patients allowed in the pharmacy at any one time.

Two-thirds have changed the layout of the pharmacy to avoid contact with customers (up from 15 per cent two weeks ago), and 62 per cent have changed opening hours.

Fifteen per cent said they had installed a protective screen at the counter, rising to 20 per cent of those working in independents.

Fifty-seven per cent reported staff using personal protective equipment (up from 15 per cent). This was true of 63 per cent of independents and 44 per cent of multiples, despite more independents saying they were short on PPE kits.

One pharmacist called for “much clearer guidance” as to whether pharmacy workers should wear single use masks for prolonged periods, worrying that some may adjust the mask due to discomfort and increase the risk of contamination.

Distancing between staff 'impossible'

Several spoke of the difficulty of distancing staff from one another, with one saying it was “impossible within the working pharmacy environment”.

Additional safety measures reported by pharmacists include having a used pen basket which is regularly disinfected, instructing staff aged over 70 to stay at home, and stopping all services in the consultation room – including supervised consumption.

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