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Patients are facing delays to their prescriptions and shortages of over-the-counter drugs because of a lack of van drivers, and the problem is expected to get worse as winter drives up demand, pharmacists have warned.
Multiple pharmacies have told The Telegraph that orders are either arriving late or not at all, without any warning and that at least one major supplier of medications had to suspend deliveries for a week because of distribution problems.
The shortage of van drivers is being caused by a combination of factors, including the wider scarcity of labour in the economy, drivers having to self-isolate because of Covid-19 and a recent change in the rules on freelancing.
Martin Hewitson runs an independent pharmacy in Dorset and is a former board member of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA). He told The Telegraph: “It’s not happening every day, but once, twice, three times a week we’re having disruption to wholesale deliveries. Medicines which we were expecting end up not arriving, often with no explanation.”
Negative impact of winter
Winter is expected to worsen the problem, with pharmacists warning that the colder months usually bring an increase in demand for medications owing to more widespread respiratory illnesses such as common colds and flu.
An NPA spokesman told The Telegraph: “We are aware that deliveries to some pharmacies have been reduced, but this is not generally affecting patients’ access to treatment at this stage. Whenever supply problems occur, pharmacists work together, with each other and local GPs, to get people the medicines they need, when and where they need them.”
Steve Anderson, the UK mnaging director of Phoenix Medical, one of the UK’s big three suppliers, admitted there was disruption to deliveries, but said the problem was affecting the whole sector and was part of wider disruption to the UK economy.
'The whole thing is a shambles'
Pharmacies rarely hold large stocks of drugs, with thousands of different possible medicines needing to be ordered and customers often requiring a variety of dosages and formulations.
“Pharmacies are a classic just-in-time supply chain,” said Mr Hewitson. “There’s never huge amounts of surplus stock in the supply chain”.
Dimple Bhatia, who runs the Tollesbury pharmacy in rural east Essex, said the disruption was hitting patients and costing pharmacies money.
He said: “We don’t know if we’re getting stock or not. We’ve got urgent medicines to give to patients so we reorder it and then we get two lots in, with one turning up three days late. It’s an admin burden having to return it and if we return too much we get penalised. The whole thing is a shambles, really.”
Impact of remote GP appointments
Pharmacists said they weren’t turning patients away but we’re instead having to phone around other local pharmacies asking if they could help or asking GPs to write alternative prescriptions.
“It can damage our reputation because people don’t understand the bigger picture,” said Mr Bhatia.
Pharmacies were already under intense pressure, having taken on extra burdens due to the pandemic. Mr Bhatia added: “We’re providing flu jabs, distributing lateral flow tests, we’ll be starting Covid booster shots next month and we’re providing advice because GP surgeries still haven’t got their doors open and so people are turning to their pharmacies for everything.”
Customers in tears due to medicine shortage
Mr Hewitson told The Telegraph: “It’s worrying [patients], if nothing else. I’ve had a woman in tears this morning who couldn’t get her medicine from her regular pharmacy. We were able to help her out.”
The disruption has also affected supplies of over-the-counter medications, with one supplier said to have suspended delivery of all over-the-counter medicines for several weeks.
One reason for the shortage of drivers is the generally tight labour market, with workers less willing to put up with long hours and low pay. This has been exacerbated by remaining drivers being asked to work longer and more frequent shifts.
Another factor is thought to be recent changes to IR35 freelancing rules. The Government has taken action on companies treating full-time employees as freelancers. However, this has forced some drivers who want to retain their freelance status to work for multiple companies at once, leaving individual businesses without guaranteed service.
Asked about the lack of van drivers, a spokesman from the Unite union told The Telegraph: “The casualisation of van driving work, with drivers being forced to be either bogusly self-employed or self-employed, coupled with long hours and poor rates of pay is leading to van drivers leaving the sector.”