By Multimedia Producer Elisa Menendez
"Frustrated" pharmacists reporting a shortage of antibiotics have urged the government to act now - but health officials continue to insist there are no supply chain issues.
The conflicting messages have caused confusion at a time when the health service is tackling a Strep A outbreak, leading to the deaths of 16 children, during its most stretched time of year.
Pharmacists across the UK say they are struggling to get hold of some of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics, such as penicillin and amoxicillin, which are used to treat Strep A.
The Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMP), which represents around 4,000 pharmacies across the country, told ITV News that in some cases, patients have been forced to travel over 20 miles to get their prescribed medication.
But Health Secretary Steve Barclay earlier said checks within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have not revealed an issue with supply of the medicines, after the National Pharmacy Association earlier there were “blips” in the supply chain of liquid penicillin, which is often given to children.
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society earlier said pharmacists are "under enormous pressure" and "struggling to get supplies" amid the outbreak.
AIMP Chief Executive Leyla Hannbeck said pharmacists have for some time seen a steady rise in the number of prescriptions for antibiotics, but since the beginning of this week it's become "incredibly difficult" to get hold of them - urging the government to act now.
"We are concerned that the government are saying that there are no supply challenges when in fact there is and patients are coming in and we are unable to fulfil the prescriptions," Dr Hannbeck told ITV News.
"Where is this supply that they're talking about? Because it certainly isn't finding its way to pharmacies," she added.
"And this issue is across the country, it's not just one area, everywhere is the same.
"Pharmacists simply get a message from suppliers saying that there is no stock availability. Sometimes some lines become available for a short period... but as soon as they come on, they go off again."
She said this has led to antibiotic prices to "jump up" by several pounds per packet.
"We feel frustrated and as healthcare professionals. We don't want to turn our patients away. Our teams are exhausted on the frontline," added Dr Hannbeck.
But she urged the public not to panic and said protocols will be put in place if the government does not act within the coming days. In the meantime, she suggested patients keep trying alternative pharmacies.
Dr Hannbeck said pharmacists may also have to liaise with doctors to consider prescribing alternative antibiotics.
She says the DHSC should have planned better.
"We are constantly, as pharmacists, finding ourselves in this situation - as soon as there's a little bit more demand, then supply falls flat," she said.
She urged the department to meet with all groups in the antibiotics supply chain from manufacturers, to wholesalers, to pharmacists: "to identify what the issues are so we can all move forward, and offer solutions so that we don't fall into this again."
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said on Thursday: "There is no supplier shortage of antibiotics available to treat Strep A. As the Secretary of State said this morning, we sometimes have surges for products and increased demand means some pharmacies are having difficulties obtaining certain antibiotics.
"We are working urgently with manufactures and wholesalers to explore what can be done to expedite deliveries and bring forward stock they have to help ensure it gets to where it's needed, to meet demand as quickly as possible and support access to these vital medicines."
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