Seanad debates

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Vaccination Programme

10:30 am

Sharon Keogan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and thank her for attending to address my question.

My Commencement matter relates to the lack of provision to administer the flu vaccine in locations other than general practice surgeries and community pharmacies. The reason I raise this issue is related, in part, to the provision by the HSE that children aged between two and 12 years would be able to receive a free flu vaccine from mid-October, which is new in 2020-21. This welcome development comes on the tail end of much talked about difficulties in staying safe during the return to school for over 500,000 primary school students. I believe the restrictive manner in which the vaccine is to be administered will lead to an undesirable overcrowding of GP surgeries and pharmacies, as well as a lower uptake than would otherwise be the case.

While GP surgeries and pharmacies have done terrific work throughout this country's fight against Covid-19, and continue to do so, they are not designed to be mass vaccination centres, especially when the matter of social distancing is considered. Additionally, there exists a shyness among the public to visit these places unless absolutely necessary out of fear of contracting the virus. This fear, founded or unfounded, exists and is particularly prevalent among older members of society who are, unfortunately, at an increased risk from Covid. These individuals are also at increased risk from the flu, which is responsible for 500 deaths, on average, each year.

We are, therefore, left with a state of affairs whereby people aged over 65 years who stand to benefit most from the flu vaccine are among the least likely to wish to visit the places where it would be administered. Would it not be of great benefit to these people and many others to make use of the various outreach hubs that exist in their communities, for example, parish halls, community halls or even workplaces? These venues could be occupied for a time by existing HSE teams in order to flatten the curve, to use the Covid slogan, of visits to GPs and pharmacies. In the same vein, given that the vaccine is being offered to so many people of primary school age, why have the Department and HSE not opted to utilise the existing framework of the HSE school vaccination teams, which are long established and have been used to great effect? I have been in contact with pharmacists regarding this matter and I am informed that there is legislation with the Minister which would allow for this. What stage has the legislation reached? When can we expect it to be implemented in order to prevent pharmacies and GP surgeries from being overrun?

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Keogan for welcoming me to the Seanad and congratulate her on being selected to become a Senator.

The Senator has tabled a very important Commencement matter. She mentioned older persons and I am very conscious that this is International Day of Older Persons. This discussion is also timely as we face into a winter with Covid-19, the winter vomiting bug and the winter flu. I am delighted to be here to respond.

We are all aware of the impact that Covid has had on our healthcare system and communities. In the coming winter months there will be additional pressures on the health system and its providers. The Government believes that increasing wider access to the winter influenza vaccine is a high priority and is needed to protect members of society, especially the most at-risk groups, and to help mitigate the impact on the health services as the pandemic evolves. I would like to announce the introduction of a new service development that will allow for the influenza vaccination to be supplied and administered by appropriately trained pharmacists at locations other than on the premises of the retail pharmacy business, which is exactly the point the Senator raised.

This extension of current practice will enable pharmacists to provide vaccination services to a greater number of patients. By providing for an off-site vaccination service, it will also remove some potential practical barriers such as capacity within the pharmacy premises due to social distancing recommendations and other public safety measures, which are in place at this time. It also has the potential to greatly increase uptake of the influenza vaccine in all the groups who can avail of the vaccine free of charge, in particular those in the at-risk categories as well as patients wishing to access the service privately. This will help to alleviate some pressures and concerns around personal safety that patients may feel, particularly during these very challenging times.Potential locations where pharmacists may wish to provide this service may include in a person's car or home, a residential care home or a car park, including a drive-through service similar to Covid-19 testing services. They may also be administered at a business premises, a school or other childcare facility or a community or sports hall, as the Senator mentions.

This amending legislation, which has been signed into law, underpins this new service development and it is envisaged to be in place for the upcoming flu season. In support of this practice extension, the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, PSI, is drafting additional guidance to support pharmacy owners, superintendent pharmacists and supervising pharmacists. These guidelines will enable the delivery of a safe and effective vaccination service off-site from the pharmacy premises. This guidance will be considered by the PSI council in early October and it is envisaged that it will be then rolled out nationwide.

It is also important to note that there is no limitation in regulation to the places where a GP may administer a vaccine and the only restrictions that existed applied to pharmacists. I am delighted to say the Irish Pharmacy Union is fully supportive of this new service practice. I take this opportunity, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to thank the PSI and relevant stakeholders for their assistance and support in the development of this service extension.

Sharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State and I welcome this initiative, as well as the support given by the Irish Pharmacy Union in rolling out the programme nationwide and providing these outreach services. There are 1,800 community pharmacists in this country so we need to consider how we can work with them in rolling out the HSE winter plan and how best we can serve our communities. These are an untapped resource for the HSE and Department. I am delighted to see the pharmacists are welcoming this initiative for administering the vaccine.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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The 2020-21 influenza vaccination season will be the tenth year that pharmacists have been permitted to provide a vaccination service to patients on pharmacy premises. It is considered appropriate to build on the existing good practice and patient trust to further develop this service in order to meet the evolving healthcare needs of the public. The Senator is quite right that the community pharmacists are an untapped resource and offer a fantastic service in all our communities.

The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is looking forward to seeing how this important service extension will be delivered and he is very hopeful it will have a positive effect on increasing access to the winter flu vaccination. It is important to acknowledge and appreciate the crucial role that pharmacists continue to play in our communities and healthcare system. I thank the Senator again for raising this very important matter.