'My shelves are empty': Pharmacists lay bare reality of antibiotic supplies amid Strep A outbreak

Pharmacy owner Dervish Gurol told ITV News he feels 'horrible' at having to turn patients away due to a lack of stock. Credit: Supplied

By Content Producer Elisa Menendez

A pharmacist has told how a young girl with Strep A collapsed in front of him after her family travelled for miles between different pharmacies to try to get antibiotics.

Struggling pharmacy owners have laid bare the lengths they have been going to in the past week to obtain antibiotics, as they urged the government to act now.

ITV News was told of pharmacists waking up daily at 4am to try and buy some of the most frequently prescribed antibiotics online, while others have suffered abuse from ill patients due to the lack of supply.

Pharmacists say they feel "horrible" and "frustrated" at the situation with some being forced to pay inflated prices amid the increased demand, such as up to £15 for a bottle of penicillin that would usually cost less than £2.

The government maintains that there is "no supplier shortage" of antibiotics but pharmacists say they are having to turn patients away because they cannot fulfil all the prescriptions they receive.

Concerns come after 16 children died from the Strep A infection - an outbreak which has peaked at the health service's most stretched time of the year.

Dervish Gurol, owner of Healthy-U Pharmacy in Brighton, told ITV News how he was left "shell shocked" after a child suffering with Strep A collapsed in his pharmacy last week.

"I had to carry her to her mother's car and send them to A&E," Mr Gurol, a father of three, said.

"They were driving around three or four cities for over an hour or two to actually try and find some antibiotics. They had their prescription in their hand.

"I'm not a paramedic... I can't emotionally deal with watching a child collapsing, not being able to breathe and then being limp in my arms.

"I lose sleep over these kinds of things."

Mr Gurol said it makes him feel "horrible", "disheartened" and "demotivated" that he can't fulfil some of his patients' prescriptions, despite working up to 18 hours a day for seven days last week.

Between Thursday and Friday, he said the pharmacy received over 700 phone calls each day asking for antibiotics.

He and other pharmacists say they are "concerned" about the government's response and unwillingness to acknowledge the apparent shortage.

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said sometimes there are "surges" for products and some pharmacies can struggle to obtain certain antibiotics amid the increased demand.

The government says there is no supply shortage of antibiotics. Credit: PA

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said last week that the DHSC was not aware of any shortages of antibiotics, though he suggested stock could be moved around if GPs were struggling.

NHS guidance has been issued on what antibiotics can be used if first line treatment isn't available - but Mr Gurol and other pharmacists say that as soon as stock becomes available online, it disappears.

And when there are supplies available, the pharmacist says he is only able to buy between two to 10 courses - or bottles - of antibiotics at inflated prices.

"But on Friday, I dispensed over 150 prescriptions. That's around 300 bottles," said Mr Gurol.

"So that's it, I don't have anything else left. I'm dry. My shelves are empty.

"And the situation is I pay all of this money up front not knowing what I'm going to get back."

The Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMP) - which represents 4,000 pharmacies - highlighted that two of the most in demand antibiotics, penicillin and amoxicillin, are not only used to treat Strep A, but a host of other infections.

Chief Executive Leyla Hannbeck told ITV News drug prices have been "going berserk" and supplies have been depleted since the start of the year, while the number of prescriptions has gone up.

"It's a very sad situation and the Department of Health has not got a grip on this. When you talk to them they completely deny there are any issues in the supply chain," she said, claiming that she's repeatedly urged the DHSC to sit down with manufacturers, pharmacists and wholesalers to find a solution.

"Something needs to happen ASAP."

The increased demand amid the Strep A outbreak has highlighted another issue pharmacists say they have been raising the alarm over for some time.

Many say they are struggling to make ends meet due to what they say is insufficient reimbursement for the drugs they buy.

The NHS, on behalf of the Department of Health, sets Drug Tariffs for various medicines using updated information from manufacturers and wholesalers. Pharmacists buy in their own stock and the NHS reimburses pharmacies a certain price for those medicines in line with their tariffs.

But pharmacists say the department's tariffs are often not in line with what they paid and that they regularly end up out of pocket. When they receive the money it can be up to several months later, they say.

Pharmacists maintain there is a shortage despite the government's statements. Credit: PA

The department reviews the tariffs every month and releases a new price concession list before the first of the month. But, according to Mr Gurol, if pharmacists have paid more than what is listed, they don't get the money back.

"You never get what you're actually owed. They always say you need to find a better discount," he added.

Mr Gurol said if things continue in the same way, his business won't be able to survive past April. He said he knows many other pharmacists in a similar situation.

"Last year I only earned minimum wage. I didn't take any more money out of my business because there was nothing to take out," he said.

"If I take anything else extra out I can't buy the stock because I haven't had a month where I was paid by the Department of Health more money than what I spent on drugs.

"So effectively, I'm operating at a loss every single month."

The DHSC says it relies on competition to drive down sales of drugs which usually result in lower prices - and accepted costs can fluctuate - "but no company should use this as an opportunity to exploit the NHS".

Dr Hannbeck agreed the process is "long and cumbersome" and take "weeks", meaning pharmacists "across the board are really struggling" and have little cash flow at a time when energy bills and the cost of living are squeezing businesses further.

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"We anticipate that over the next year, if nothing improves, a large number of pharmacists are going to be closing their doors for good," Dr Hannbeck added.

"Unless the Department of Health does something, the whole thing is going to unfold.

"The situation that we're going to see is local pharmacies closing and then people will have to travel further to get to the next one. A lot of people can't do that.

"It's not just about dispensing medicines - it's about everything."

A DHSC spokesperson said: “There is no supplier shortage of antibiotics available to treat Strep A. We sometimes have surges for products and increased demand means some pharmacies are having difficulties obtaining certain antibiotics.

“We rely on competition to drive down the prices of generic medicines which generally results in lower prices for the NHS – this means prices can fluctuate, but no company should use this as an opportunity to exploit the NHS.

“Where companies are found to be abusing their dominant position by charging excessive and unfair prices, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) can take action against businesses and individuals engaged in anti-competitive conduct.”