The coronavirus pandemic has tested the pharmacy profession like never before. Amid the issues regarding personal protective equipment and the debacle surrounding the pre-registration exam, the GPhC made a sweeping generalised statement about its registrants profiteering. While one company was actually found to be profiteering by charging an extortionate £19.99 for a 200ml bottle of Calpol and £9.99 for a 32 pack of paracetamol tablets, some companies threatened to refer locums to the GPhC for negotiating rates of pay. So where has all this intimidation got us?
To find out, the Pharmacist Cooperative submitted a freedom of information request to the GPhC. We wanted to know how many complaints were actually received about pharmacists, how many were received about contractors and pharmacy owners and what the complaints were about. The statement made by the GPhC Chief Executive on 19th March 2020 said, "By contrast, the actions of a small minority are raising concerns and anger within the profession itself and more widely. Profiteering to take selfish advantage of the current challenging situation, whether with prices of shortage products or locum rates, risks bringing the profession into disrepute at a time when public confidence generally is so fragile, and so important.”
Interestingly our freedom of information request showed a few surprising numbers from the GPhC. In the period between the 10th of February 2020 and the 18th of March 2020, of the total 352 logged concerns, there was just one single concern regarding profiteering by a pharmacist. By contrast, there were 30 individual concerns raised in relation to profiteering or pricing behaviour by contractors/pharmacy owners. On the 19th of March 2020, the GPhC Chief Executive Duncan Rudkin made the statement outlined above seemingly based on one single complaint of profiteering against a pharmacist, among the entire locum population. In the period between the 19th of March 2020 and the 28th of April 2020, the numbers rose to 5 concerns of profiteering by pharmacists, and 94 by contractors/pharmacy owners of the total 464 concerns logged by the GPhC, respectively. A crucial point does remain, however. We enquired about whether any of the concerns related to the nine GPhC Standards for Pharmacy Professionals. Yet, the only answer we received was “The information in our database is not currently linked to standards, so this information is not held”. This would require a separate freedom of information request to ascertain whether the GPhC had any legitimate interest in pursuing the aforementioned concerns.
Pharmacists all over the country were, and still are working tirelessly on the frontline, sometimes without personal protective equipment – putting themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19. It is important to note at this stage, that negotiation for work as a locum pharmacist is common place as part of a free and competitive market. Yet we have seen evidence of locums receiving abuse from companies for negotiation and threats of being blacklisted and referred to the GPhC. Alas, where else in the world does the customer get to dictate the price? With the onset of the coronavirus and the temporary registration of around three thousand pharmacists, the weak response from the GPhC has simply emboldened companies to continue dictating wages to locums and keep pharmacies closed until locums who accept the basic rates can be sourced.
The pandemic has been a long and hard journey for everyone. But to be accused of profiteering and suffer through poor working environments added to the pain for many. It is incumbent upon us all to stand together, as one united profession, to face this pandemic head on. In doing so, we must protect our profession from those who might risk harming it, by working together to bring about positive change.