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Evidence of some employers crying wolf over pharmacist shortages during pandemic

The PDA is concerned that the large pharmacist locum workforce, a distinct strength of our profession is not being used to the full in this critical fight with COVID-19. 

Mon 1st June 2020 The PDA

The PDA is concerned that the large pharmacist locum workforce, a distinct strength of our profession is not being used to the full in this critical fight with COVID-19.  Anecdotal information is being received by the PDA of local situations that indicate that some employers are using the Pandemic as an opportunity to reduce their operational costs. In some instances, however, the effect of this is damaging the image of the profession and is detrimental to the public.

Examples include where pharmacies are being operated without a pharmacist present for large periods during the day on the pretext that no pharmacist was available; with a pharmacist only being made available for a few hours in the middle of the day or where some pharmacies are being closed altogether on the basis that no pharmacist cover could be found.

On closer scrutiny, such cover was available from within the local locum community, but it was not sought. In other cases, Primary Care pharmacists employed by local CCGs or Health Boards are being requested to assist with emergency pharmacist cover (at the CCGs expense) on the pretext that they are playing an important role in keeping the local community pharmacy service going during the crisis due to the alleged shortages where no such emergency shortages actually existed.

Numerous reports from Scotland indicate that rather than engage local locum pharmacists who are experienced with that nation’s services, some community pharmacy multiples are engaging pharmacists from England and expect them to engage in roles specifically delivered only in Scottish pharmacies for which they have not received the training.

Locums are available but are simply not being booked, and many have experienced cancellation of bookings.

A recent PDA ‘COVID-19 experience survey’ of over 800 members indicated that during a period of 30 days in April and May 2020:

  • 36% of Locums had bookings cancelled.
  • almost 65% of Locums had availability which had not been booked.
  • 20% of locums had cancelled bookings themselves due to COVID-19 type symptoms and/or periods of self-isolating as per government advice.

PDA Chairman, Mark Koziol said…

“We have been listening to our locum pharmacist members’ concerns regarding the reduced number of locum vacancies, the work available to them and reducing rates. We understand the impact that the pandemic has had on our locum members. The conditions created by the pandemic are tantamount to ‘a perfect storm’ regarding the normal supply and demand dynamics in pharmacy.”

Due to the pandemic, many employed pharmacists have not been taking annual leave, some pharmacies have been closed or have reduced opening hours, pharmacists working in multiples’ head offices, primary care and education and similar settings have been redeployed back into community, as have a population of recently retired pharmacists who have temporarily returned to the register. Training events have also been cancelled. Locums too have not been taking holidays, so it seems there is not just a lower demand for locums, but a higher than normal supply of locums available. All of which has had an impact on the availability of locum work.

The supply and demand dynamics will now be affected by a further COVID-19 related development. Following the announcement of the GPhC that the annual pre-reg assessment will have to be postponed until later in 2020 or even early 2021, most pre-regs will now become provisionally registered on August 1st, 2020. Since the GPhC has indicated that they will be able to work as RPs, this will affect the supply situation, however, they can only do so as employee’s and strictly under the supervision of another fully qualified pharmacist. The GPhC has indicated that during this provisionally registered period, they will not be allowed to work as locums. As such, the impact of such a development upon the supply and demand situation is harder to predict.

The PDA has previously warned contractors about trying to manipulate the locum market and there is clearly extra financial pressure on contractors as lockdown has reduced some income streams. In England, these pressures are magnified by the fact that there have been £100s of millions of deductions taken out of the global sum over this past three years. However, just as government deleted over £13Bn of NHS hospital trust debt, the Health & Social Care Secretary could decide to better fund community pharmacy in order that all parts of the profession can be actively tackling the crisis.

The PDA reiterate that it is unlawful for employers acting together, or by conspiring with a locum agency(ies) to seek to manipulate market rates and inhibit free-market conditions and where we receive evidence of employers and other organisations acting unlawfully, we will have no hesitation in referring any anti-competitive cartel behaviour to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), where necessary.

The PDA does want to work with contractor organisations to secure that much-needed government funding, which is also required to keep pharmacy workplaces safe, however lack of government funding should not be considered the end of efforts to engage the capacity of locums.  As the union for pharmacists, we will always support calls for greater funding for the sector to keep it safe and effective.

Mark Koziol continued…

“The relatively large proportion of locum pharmacists in the UK gives the profession a pool of qualified health professionals that are used to taking on new roles in new environments, yet this incredible resource is not being used to its potential. We have continued to promote the availability of locums for the wide range of new opportunities that have evolved through the pandemic”

The PDA has promoted the availability of locums by generating the Locum Task Force and those who registered agreed for their information to be shared with the NHS, CCGs and Health Boards. This has now been done and the list is available for these bodies to access to help with the COVID-19 response. Nurses and Doctors were similarly asked to register their willingness to work at the Nightingale Hospitals, but the majority have not been required since the NHS has coped.

This ‘taskforce’ may be called upon to work in non-traditional pharmacy-related roles, help with the Nightingale initiative, or with the new track and trace system, helping to deliver CDs to the homes of patients in palliative care situations – and much more besides. As we move into the next phase the Locum Taskforce may or may not be called upon. Not all those who have registered will be required or suitable for certain tasks. We cannot predict how many on the register will be contacted.

Throughout this pandemic period, the PDA has challenged a range of positions taken by employers and once again we find ourselves bringing these matters to the attention of the government, regulator and to employers themselves. We are demanding that employers make much better of use of the locum resource available. In some cases, this is simply to enable the public to access the existing service, in others, it is to further optimise the contribution that pharmacists can make in the wider response to the virus. We are also reminding them that history is littered with lessons about previous attempts to mistreat the locum community and once this pandemic is over, it will ultimately be the locums who will remember who acted in a way that put the service and the patients first and who did not.

The above “word cloud” diagram shows the most common descriptions that locum members told us they had for the absence of shifts.

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