A “lack of planning” from Government officials is to blame for a shortage of cough and cold medicines, pharmacy leaders have said.
The Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies accused the Government of “being in denial” over problems with the supply chain.
It comes as pharmacists reported shortages of common medicines for colds and flu including throat lozenges, cough mixtures and some pain killers.
The UK Health Security Agency has warned that winter illnesses including flu and Covid-19 continue to circulate at “high levels”.
As a result, officials urged people to keep children with a fever off school and urged unwell adults to wear face masks to stem the spread of infections.
The association said that the latest shortages – which come off the back of supply issues with antibiotics and HRT last year – could cause additional pressures on the NHS.
Chief executive Leyla Hannbeck told the PA news agency: “Pharmacists are struggling to obtain the very basic, most common cold and flu medicine.
“This isn’t just the branded medicines, it is also simple things like throat lozenges, cough mixtures or pain killers – particularly the ones that are soluble.
“The demand has been high because this season we’ve seen higher cases of colds and flu and people are obviously trying very hard to look after themselves and making sure that they use the relevant products to manage the symptoms.
“And that has led to a shortage of these products in terms of us not being able to obtain them.”
Ms Hannbeck added: “But this is part of a bigger issue – from HRT to antibiotics to this, we are constantly finding ourselves in a situation when as soon as the demand for something goes up we are struggling with the supply.
“Unfortunately part of that is a lack of planning by officials (at the Department of Health and Social Care) in terms of foreseeing the problems and trying to plan in advance to sort it.
“For example, with cold and flu, we knew some months ago cases were going up and it was anticipated that there would be higher demand for these products.
“So you would have thought that plans would have been in place in terms of managing this with regards to liaising with manufacturers and getting the products in.”
Not being able to access self-care products in pharmacies is leading to more pressure for the NHS, she added.
“What we are seeing, which is concerning, when people go to pharmacies and try and get hold of the products over the counter, particularly for small children, then people start to stress and panic and what we don’t want to happen is for more people to go to their GP or A&E when the NHS is already under a lot of strain,” Ms Hannbeck added.
“It comes back to a broader issue of our supply chain not functioning properly.
“And every time there is demand for something – like with Strep A (which saw a spike in demand for antibiotics) cases were going up in October, and then in early December the Government said there were no supply issues – when clearly there were supply issues – and then they had to issue a serious shortage protocol which demonstrates that there actually is a supply issue.
“So it becomes trouble shooting rather than having robust plans to sort problems out.”
She added: “If you’re in denial that there are supply issues, if you don’t want to admit there is a problem, how can you find solutions?
“On the front line it is very difficult because we’re seeing these shortages but those people who are in charge of supporting us with it are denying it.”
But she added: “We don’t want people to panic – as pharmacists we do everything we can to ensure we support patients in every way possible and try and sort alternatives, or give advice on how to manage cold and flu symptoms.”
High street chain Superdrug said that it had seen a huge demand for cough and cold medicines.
Niamh McMillan Superdrug pharmacy superintendent said: “We are currently experiencing exceptionally high demand for cold and flu products.
“If your usual products are unavailable and you’re looking to relieve your symptoms, our pharmacists can offer advice on the most appropriate pain relief and decongestant products to help you.”
A spokesperson from Boots added: “General availability of cough and cold relief at our stores across the UK is good, and enough to meet current demand.
“There may be temporary shortages in some stores of a particular brand, eg Lemsip, but there will almost always be suitable alternatives available.
“Customers should speak to their pharmacist for advice on alternatives, if needed.”
Health minister Will Quince met with Ms Hannbeck on Wednesday to discuss issues in community pharmacy, including concerns about supply of cold and flu medicines.
The Department of Health and Social Care is understood to have received industry feedback that any issues are sporadic and localised.
A department spokesperson said: “We are aware of reports of issues with the availability of some branded cold and flu medicines.
“These appear to be temporary and localised, but we are engaging with suppliers to investigate and help ensure that over-the-counter cold and flu medicines remain available.”