Despite the COVID-19 Crisis, pharmacies cannot legally operate in the absence of a Responsible Pharmacist – update 3

Earlier this week, the GPhC and it's Northern Ireland Counterpart the PSNI issued a joint statement in which they recognised that there may be situations occurring in the near future where pharmacists may unexpectedly fall ill during a shift and it may not be possible to locate a replacement pharmacist immediately.

Fri 20th March 2020 The PDA

An article in today’s Chemist and Druggist magazine initially entitled: COVID-19: Pharmacies can operate without a responsible pharmacist has understandably caused significant concern and its title is misleading. Following advice from the PDA, this title has now been changed but we are concerned that the damage has already been done.

Earlier this week, the GPhC and it’s Northern Ireland Counterpart the PSNI issued a joint statement in which they recognised that there may be situations occurring in the near future where pharmacists may unexpectedly fall ill during a shift and it may not be possible to locate a replacement pharmacist immediately. Their joint statement recognised that in highly challenging circumstances, professionals may need to depart from established procedures in order to care for patients and their families. Their statement dealt with the issue of already dispensed and bagged medicines that had been checked by the pharmacist and that were awaiting collection. The legal position currently if a patient returned to collect these medicines at a point when the pharmacist had left due to falling ill, is that it would be unlawful for these medicines to be supplied.

Their statement states that;

“We recognise there may be situations where the responsible pharmacist unavoidably has to leave the pharmacy at short notice part-way through the day, (e.g. if they are unwell and need to self-isolate).

Where no locum cover can be secured at the pharmacy, and recognising the potential effects of the current pandemic, it would be in the patient’s best interest for medicines already dispensed to be supplied from the pharmacy rather than not supplied at all, even though this may not be in strict accordance with the law as normally understood.

The pharmacy regulators will support pharmacy professionals in the front line making this judgment in patients’ best interests. In such circumstances, we would expect there to be access to a pharmacist by phone or video link to provide direction for the remaining staff in the pharmacy. 

Such an approach should only be adopted for a short time period, where other options have been exhausted. Except in such exceptional circumstances, even in the current pandemic situation, arrangements must be made for a pharmacist to be at the pharmacy, including to undertake the responsible pharmacist role and supervise the sale and supply of POM and P medicines.”

What they are saying is that supplying the checked and pre-bagged medicines in such a situation is still unlawful; however, if the pharmacist falls ill, then as the frontline healthcare professional they can make the professional decision to step outside of the law and allow pre-dispensed and bagged medicines to be handed out in their absence as long as arrangements for another pharmacist to be available via telephone could be made. In such circumstances, though still unlawful, the GPhC would support such a decision and not seek to enforce the law in these exceptional circumstances.

The PDA supports this move by the regulator. At this time of crisis, it is enabling pharmacists to put patients’ needs ahead of the rules and the regulations. Members should rest assured that should they choose to act in this way, for the benefit of patients, then the PDA’s legal team and resources would fall four-square behind them in the event of any potential challenges from elsewhere in the system.

However, it is important to note that this measure is only capable of being activated by the Responsible Pharmacist (RP) as it is they who are directly at the front line and capable of being able to make this professional decision. It is a facility that has been provided by the GPhC for Responsible Pharmacists should it be required by them and strictly for the period of the COVID-19 Crisis only.

Members have been contacting the PDA concerned not only about this headline, but also the fact that some Head Offices are already sending them memos seeking to systemise absences by issuing protocols. The GPhC guidance related to professional decisions being made by pharmacists to support patients at the coal face; not standardised protocols that could inhibit or replace professional decision making by pharmacists, by imposing business process interpretations of the RP regulations. Furthermore, it is a specific requirement of the law that an RP may only be the Responsible Pharmacist for one pharmacy.

At this time of unprecedented crisis, we ask the pharmacy media and all employers to act responsibly and support their front line pharmacists with information that is in keeping with the latest guidance provided by the regulator. We ask employers not to produce their own organisationally driven interpretations of the law or the RP regulations. The regulators are trying to give pharmacists some flexibility to help patients and there may be more to follow; we urge pharmacists to rely on their guidance.

Pharmacists who are receiving Head Office Memos stating that their pharmacy can now operate in the absence of a pharmacist should bring to their employers’ attention the specific notification from the regulators, this clarification from the PDA and the RP regulations.


We want to keep you aware of matters important to your practice and employment and will send further updates on our discussions and any agreements that have been reached with the government and others.  You can also get updates by following our social media.

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