Frontline workers in pharmacists are being subjected to a wave of abuse ranging from violent attacks to verbal intimidation such as being told: “I hope you get coronavirus.”
Police patrols have been deployed to some outlets as deterrents amid mounting day-to-day tensions, scuffles in queues outside premises, which are limiting the number of entrants, and incidents including the theft of one Midlands’ pharmacy’s stock by masked raiders.
“We’re doing our best, the NHS is doing its best and this type of behaviour is totally unacceptable,” said Claude Pereira, a pharmacist in Stratford where police were called after a customer smashed a glass door and threatened to kill staff.
The abuse – which three-quarters of pharmacies say has risen since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic – comes on top of other pressures on pharmacists, who have stepped into the face-to-face breach left by the closure of GP surgeries now assessing patients by telephone.
One is the concern around the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), which is already in short supply to NHS workers.
“We’re trying to get pharmacists on the government’s list of those who need PPE,” said Leyla Hannbeck, the chief executive officer of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, which represents more than 2,000 independent pharmacies around the UK.
“We’ve seen a real drop in capacity and shortage of staff as the crisis has gone on and our members are eager to stay open. We are very clear with regards to the government’s advice on safeguarding, but there are still some owners who may be older who feel that they need to continue working.”
Pharmacists have also suffered in other ways from falling outside the provisions offered to NHS staff when it comes to the challenge of buying food. Some were denied access to special shopping hours at supermarkets because they did not have an NHS card, according to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), the sector’s body.
It has written to the British Retail Consortium to raise concerns about the approach taken by some supermarket chains, and called on companies including Tesco and Sainsbury’s to ensure that pharmacists are given access.
The increasing abuse has also been raised by the RPS with the National Police Chief’s Council, which has advised pharmacies to report incidents so that forces can build up a picture of the problem and respond to it.
What is Covid-19?
It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it a pandemic.
What are the symptoms this coronavirus causes?
According to the WHO, the most common symptoms of Covid-19 are fever, tiredness and a dry cough. Some patients may also have a runny nose, sore throat, nasal congestion and aches and pains or diarrhoea. Some people report losing their sense of taste and/or smell. About 80% of people who get Covid-19 experience a mild case – about as serious as a regular cold – and recover without needing any special treatment.
About one in six people, the WHO says, become seriously ill. The elderly and people with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, or chronic respiratory conditions, are at a greater risk of serious illness from Covid-19.
In the UK, the National health Service (NHS) has identified the specific symptoms to look for as experiencing either:
- a high temperature - you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
- a new continuous cough - this means you’ve started coughing repeatedly
As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work, and there is currently no vaccine. Recovery depends on the strength of the immune system.
Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?
Medical advice varies around the world - with many countries imposing travel bans and lockdowns to try and prevent the spread of the virus. In many place people are being told to stay at home rather than visit a doctor of hospital in person. Check with your local authorities.
In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days. If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.
How many people have been affected?
China’s national health commission confirmed human-to-human transmission in January. As of 31 March, more than 938,000 people have been infected in more than 170 countries, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
There have been over 47,200 deaths globally. Just over 3,200 of those deaths have occurred in mainland China. Italy has been worst affected, with over 13,100 fatalities, and there have been over 9,300 deaths in Spain. The US now has more confirmed cases than any other country - more than 216,000. Many of those who have died had underlying health conditions, which the coronavirus complicated.
More than 194,000 people are recorded as having recovered from the coronavirus.
One told of “verbal abuse, emotional blackmail, failure to observe social distancing, queue-jumping [and] generally selfish behaviour”, while another spoke of “huge amounts” of verbal abuse” over the phone, adding: “Staff have been told: ‘I hope you get the virus’ or ‘I hope you die from coronavirus’ multiple times per day … Most of the abuse is from the over-60s.”
Nicola Goodberry, a pharmacist in Doncaster, said aggressive behaviour by some customers had increased after the government introduced social distancing measures last month.
“After the advice came in, we had to limit the number of people coming in at one time, and that has led to grief. Unfortunately, we are seeing some people behave in a very out-of-character way when they have experienced delays, in some cases swearing and even throwing boxes of tablets at staff.”
While some pharmacies have been erecting perspex glass screens at their own expense, Goodberry said this was not always possible and that the layout in her premises would not allow for this.
Staff in major high-street chains too have experienced the wrath of stressed customers. Boots, which is running a campaign called #prescribekindness aimed at encouraging kind behaviour, has meanwhile distributed 2,500 Perspex screens for its counters – one per store – ordered 20,000 mobile lightweight versions and supplied all stores with PPE equipment including gloves, face masks, visors and aprons.
A manager of Boots in Cardiff praised his staff on a LinkedIn post, but added: “The abuse they’ve endured on a daily basis since the outbreak of this virus is unfathomable.
“For people to think they have the right to behave in the way they have is completely unbelievable. All I have seen on social media is people criticising pharmacists for keeping them waiting, making them queue, being out of stock of Calpol, I could go on. I have been called names, spat at, had to listen to my team as they tell me about the abuse they have endured. It breaks me.”