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A Testing Search #Access2Antivirals


Man wearing an FFP2 speaks to pharmacist who looks confused.

Last week, I tested positive for Covid after having a sore throat from my holiday. As a person who was identified as clinically extremely vulnerable at the start of the pandemic, this set off a series of alarm bells. A subset of the CEV group is severely immunosuppressed (SI), and many of us may have made poor or even no response to Covid vaccines. Consequently, we need to be able to test so that we can be referred for antiviral treatment rapidly. Ideally, this should happen as soon as possible for the best outcomes, because after five days, they won't work! Accessing lateral flow tests for SI people used to be quick and easy via the NHS website, but since last November, the website was retired, and tests are now available via local pharmacies.


So, after consulting the NHS website, I went to visit two chemists close to me in Lambeth…


Pharmacies 1 & 2

The first chemist stated they knew nothing about NHS tests for SI people and instead offered tests for private purchase. They told me that they were “not part of any such scheme.” I then tried the chemist next door, run by the Millenium Pharmacy group. The assistant conferred with the pharmacist, and neither of them knew of the scheme. She told me that I “would have to go elsewhere.” When I spoke to the pharmacist, he confused it with the offer of free lateral flows for everyone available up until early 2022. After a phone call the pharmacist suggested that if I went to his colleague’s pharmacy later that afternoon, they would issue me a test kit. However, at this point, I had to give up for the day.


That evening, I searched the NHS website for more pharmacies in my local area where test kits could be sourced. I found three chemists in Southwark: Superdrug, Boots, and an independent pharmacy.


Pharmacy 3

On Saturday morning, I recommenced my mission. At Superdrug, the pharmacist directed me to the manager, who told me they had run out of test kits. I was surprised to hear this, but I quickly moved on to Boots a little further down the street.


Pharmacy 4

Once there, I was greeted by staff who were not aware of the scheme. The pharmacist had to ask the manager about it. When I assured them that they were listed on the NHS website, the pharmacist told me that it could not be the case because otherwise, they would have been informed and trained. I was baffled as to what level of training might be required to distribute test kits to severely immunosuppressed people beyond entering their details into a computer. Meanwhile, the manager was looking up NHS websites on his mobile, trying to determine whether their Boots branch was listed but unable to find any reference. After waiting about fifteen minutes, the pharmacist kindly rang another chemist down the street who claimed to know about it. So, I was directed to visit that chemist.


Pharmacy 5

I arrived at the next pharmacy with a sense of trepidation. This pharmacist was matter-of-fact, looked at the letter from my consultant, entered my details on a computer, and handed me five test kits! It took all of five minutes in the end. The pharmacist told me that after almost a year of low demand, there had been a sudden surge in requests for tests in last two weeks and that something must be “kicking off” out there. I informed him that there was a new wave hitting.


All of these chemists, bar possibly one, had test kits for sale but no free kits for SI people, which are a vital step for accessing antiviral treatments.


Pharmacy 1 ( ...again! )

On my return home, I called the first pharmacy and told them I had been refused a kit even though the NHS website showed that they offered them and that I was going to inform the NHS. Within ten minutes, I received a call back to tell me that although they were indeed a part of the scheme, as they had received no requests for tests for some time and consequently had none in stock, they would be requesting a new batch of kits. In this new wave, I hope they remain true to their word.


Conclusions following my experience

This system of issuing vital test kits *urgently* to severely immunosuppressed people through community pharmacies needs to be addressed. Life can be difficult enough for SI people and it is especially hard if they are unwell. Free testing is an essential part of the process to rapidly access life saving antiviral treatments.


At a time when many SI people are under pressure to test and are struggling with the cost of living, having pharmacies trying to substitute the free tests for expensive ones feels truly shocking. Nobody should have to visit five pharmacies in order to access one free kit. What happens to people with fewer pharmacies in their area? Some people would undoubtedly have given up long before I did, and so this risks clinically vulnerable lives.


The system is not fit for purpose. Let's return to the fairer system of online ordering!

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