Resham Kotecha is a strategy consultant. She contested Coventry North West in the 2017 general election, and currently serves as the Head of Engagement for Women2Win.

The Government has ambitious plans to vaccinate everyone in the four highest priority groups by mid-February. This equates to 15 million people, and while 4.61 million UK citizens had received their initial jab by the end of Tuesday, two million jabs a week are needed to reach the target.

Currently, the target would mean the bulk of the burden would fall to GPs. While they have been working valiantly, staffing numbers and an already monumental workload means they are unlikely to be able to deliver two million vaccines a week without significant support.

Hospital pharmacies are already involved in administering the Pfizer and Oxford vaccines, and community pharmacies are being brought in to join the vaccination programme. There are more than 11,000 community pharmacies in England; 1,200 in Scotland; and 700 in Wales. Two hundred pharmaceutical sites will be administering the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine next week, with Boots, Superdrug and Lloyds committed to delivering over 1,000 vaccines a week.

Simon Dukes, Chief Executive of the Pharmaceutical Negotiating Services Committee, said pharmacies have the capability to vaccinate about 1.3 million Brits each week. With community pharmacies joining the fight to dispense vaccinations, the Government is looking more and more likely to be able to meet its target to vaccinate people in the four most “at-risk” categories. It is absolutely right that we utilise all the skilled people we can during times of crisis, but it would be remiss to ignore the value that community pharmacists could add to tackling health inequalities and providing healthcare beyond the Covid-19 vaccines and medicine dispensation.

Community pharmacies are already involved in flu and travel vaccinations and have the knowledge and capability to diagnose minor health issues and support the delivery of health care for patients. Every day, about 1.6 million people visit a pharmacy in England and 37 per cent of people visit their pharmacy monthly. 89 per cent of England’s population has access to a community pharmacy within a 20 minute walk, and over 99 per cent of those in areas of high deprivation and low health outcomes are within this 20 minute walk of a community pharmacy.

An NHS study (pre-Covid) found that the average waiting time for a GP appointment was 19 days, placing additional pressures on stretched GP surgeries and hospital A&E departments. Pharmacists would make a great second line of defence to relieve pressures on GPs – and less than 20 per cent of pharmacy teams surveyed believe pharmacy is being fully utilised.

By expanding the services that pharmacies can offer, and empowering pharmacists, we could leverage a currently under-utilised pharmacy service, and reduce the burden on overwhelmed GPs, A&E departments and other parts of the NHS. To meet the increasing demands of an ageing population with rising rates of obesity, we need our cohort of 45,000+ pharmacists to be empowered to work alongside our GPs and to be appropriately and adequately financially rewarded for the services they deliver through NHS contracts.

An obvious opportunity is an enhanced vaccine programme. It is possible that the Covid-19 vaccine might need to be offered to vulnerable people every winter, or at regular intervals. Community pharmacists should be recruited to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine alongside the regular flu vaccine.

In addition to the Covid-19 vaccine, we should commission the provision of the National Childhood Vaccination Programme from pharmacies. Currently, community pharmacists provide a number of private vaccinations, including chicken pox, MMR, meningitis and HPV, but not NHS vaccines. By commissioning community pharmacies to deliver the NHS vaccination programme, a significant amount of work would be taken from overloaded GPs and would support cash-strapped pharmacies.

Finally, the Government should enable pharmacists to populate the patient record. Currently, community pharmacists can view Summary Care Records, but are unable to populate or update them. Many patients are unaware that when they get emergency medication from their pharmacy, their GP will not be informed via updated records. This means that GPs are unable to see “real time” updates and it is often left to the patient to update their GP when records are not accurate.

By enabling pharmacists to update patient records, GPs would have access to up to date records at all times, including around emergency meds provision, travel vaccinations and supervised methadone compliance. By making a few simple policy changes, we can extend the provision of healthcare into communities, tackle healthcare inequalities, reduce some work from overstretched GPs and ensure we utilise the full capabilities of our talented community pharmacists.

We may be seeing the light at the end of the Covid tunnel, but let’s ensure we take every step possible to strengthen our healthcare and empower community pharmacists to support people in their communities.