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Snowbound GPs refused emergency dispensing rights

By Steve Nowottny

Patients in snowbound rural areas have been forced to travel miles in dangerous weather conditions to use their nearest pharmacy, after local pharmacies closed and the Department of Health refused to relax dispensing rules for GP practices.

The DH has decided not to introduce emergency measures which would permit PCTs to decide locally whether hundreds of dispensing practices should be given permission to dispense to all of their patients, in cases where adverse weather conditions have forced other local pharmacies to close.

Instead, PCTs have been left with no option but to turn down dispensing practices' offer to step into the breach – even where heavy snowfall has severely stretched local health services. This has meant practices have had to turn patients away, despite having drugs in stock.

GPs at one surgery in Cheshire said patients had been forced to brave dire weather conditions and travel five miles to obtain medication on Wednesday, after two local pharmacies closed early.

The Knoll Surgery Partnership in Frodsham, Cheshire, requested emergency permission to dispense to all of its patients after the pharmacies closed, but NHS Western Cheshire said it was unable to grant the request as no directive allowing it to do so had been issued by health secretary Andy Burnham.

‘This leaves us in the invidious position of sending patients away when we have stocks of drugs available,' said practice manager Paul Smith.

‘Based as we are in a small market town, we feel in these sudden onset extreme weather conditions we also clearly have a role to play within our health economy.'

‘We are not campaigning for wider access to dispensing doctors nor a change in regulation – we do feel strongly we are here to help our patients not not send them on a cross country trek, putting them at greater risk than the complaint they attended with.'

A spokesperson for NHS Western Cheshire said it would welcome a decision from the health secretary to extend local practices' dispensing rights while adverse weather conditions persisted.

But a Department of Health spokesperson said: 'Emergency Directions are currently only invoked as part of a response to a specified illness such as a flu pandemic. We are keeping the situation under review but a change would first be needed to the Regulations to cover the current weather crisis.'

'Many pharmacies can offer home deliveries to ensure patients receive the medicines they require.'

Many rural parts of the UK have been blanketed by snow this week - original photo by Gemma Longman Flickr ( Many rural parts of the UK have been blanketed by snow this week - original photo by Gemma Longman Flickr