Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA has thanked community pharmacy teams for their ongoing commitment and support to patients and wider society during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The deputy First Minister recently met with representatives of the community pharmacy network to hear the experiences of pharmacy team across the North during the first wave of the pandemic.

During the meeting, Minister O’Neill, who was joined by Sinn Fein colleagues, Francie Molloy MP, Emma Sheerin MLA and Linda Dillon MLA, heard about the range of continuing measures community pharmacies have introduced to shield patients from the virus, while ensuring the on-going safe supply of medicines and the right clinical advice is given to all within their communities. 

The deputy First Minister, who was Health Minister in 2016, heard of the advancements in new services being provided by community pharmacies including the flu vaccine service that has resulted in nearly 17,000 people receiving the flu vaccine from their local pharmacy this winter.

The delegation also discussed the plans for the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out through community pharmacies with the deputy First Minister. Over 300 community pharmacies have come forward to say that they wish to provide Covid-19 vaccinations which will start in the coming weeks.

Speaking after the meeting, deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill MLA said:

“It was a privilege to speak with the representatives of the community pharmacy network who have played a vital role on the front line during the past 12 months.

“Many of us have depended on our local community pharmacists, as they continued to provide an essential health service to local communities, ensuring medicines were supplied to the most vulnerable and clinical advice was given to patients in need.

The deputy First Minister continued:

“I was especially pleased to hear about the plans the network has for the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine. The convenience and accessibility of our community pharmacies will enhance the vaccine programme even further.

“When I was Health Minister, I signed a memorandum of understanding with the community pharmacy network, to bring forward a new framework for community pharmacy services. Since the pandemic, it is clear to me that community pharmacists can play an even greater role in delivering healthcare to local communities. The pandemic has only highlighted further their value within both the wider health service and society as the supportive, accessible, and resilient healthcare provider we all rely on.

Gerard Greene, Chief Executive of Community Pharmacy NI said:

“We welcomed the opportunity to meet with the deputy First Minister and discuss the pivotal role community pharmacists have played over the past year in the pandemic response.

“The pressure faced by pharmacy teams over the past twelve months has been immense.  From tirelessly working extra hours to ensure medicines were sourced and dispensed to patients and risking their own health on the frontline every day, the commitment shown by community pharmacy teams has without doubt saved lives. It is great to see our teams get the recognition they deserve.

“It was terrific to outline the plans for community pharmacists’ involvement in the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine programme. The network has the capacity and pharmacists are clinically trained to vaccinate the public and further contribute to the pandemic response and improving public health. Through our current engagement with the Department of Health and

Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland (CPNI) had also released its summary of how the first year of lock down had gone for community pharmacy.

Over the course of the past year,’ CPNI had said, “the pandemic has placed community pharmacy front and centre in the fight against Covid-19 within our communities. From the very beginning our network stepped up, adjusted to a fast-moving situation, and made sure they could be there for communities in need.

“Overnight, community pharmacies and services were adapted to meet new demands including social distancing measures and protective screens. We adjusted working hours to account for long queues of anxious patients and ensure everyone who needed us could access the pharmacy. Many pharmacies split teams into bubbles to make sure no pharmacy had to close because of staff contracting Covid -19. Pharmacy footfall increased fourfold in the early months of the pandemic with an average of 40,000 more people per week and pharmacists working 70-hour weeks to meet this demand.

“The defining characteristic shown by our community pharmacy teams has been resilience. As medical professionals, they understood the gravity of the virus and were determined to protect as many members of their communities from Covid-19. As other medical facilities closed their doors, pharmacies remained open to ensure the safe supply of medicines and provide sound clinical advice becoming the first port of call for anyone managing a lifelong condition or experiencing illness.

“The adaptability of the community pharmacy network was further highlighted in its role in the wider health response to Covid-19. Through expanded services, including the Emergency Supply Service and the Pharmacy First Programme, pharmacies were able to take some of the pressure of other health services that needed to focus on the most unwell in our society Pharmacies also introduced a new flu vaccination service initially to include health care workers and later expanded to be offered to all those over 50.

“The pandemic has changed the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland. Nobody could have foreseen the past year. Time is now needed for reflection on what has happened and the lessons learned that can be taken forward as we try to build back and recover. The Covid-19 vaccination programme is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I am proud that community pharmacies will be delivering the vaccine to their communities in the coming weeks.

“This week, as we reflect, we recognise the incredible work of the community pharmacy network over the past year, we remember the lives that we have lost, and pay tribute to all our health colleagues who have fought alongside us to protect our communities and save lives.”

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