SUPPLIES of asthma inhalers have been hit as demand for the lifesaving medication has spiked as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been claimed.
Doctors have reported an increase in the number of patients ordering prescriptions for inhalers in recent weeks.
And now a community pharmacist has reported that he has been unable to order any new inhalers after his suppliers told him they have run out.
The pharmacist normally dispenses 300 inhalers a month but said he has already handed out 623 inhalers to patients this month.
It comes as Northern Ireland's chief pharmaceutical officer Cathy Harrison warned that stockpiling medication could disadvantage other patients.
"There is no need for you to do anything new or different when ordering or taking your medicines," she said.
"People should order prescriptions and take their medicines as normal.
"Extra supplies should not be ordered from your doctor.
"Stockpiling or purchasing medication that you do not need is completely unnecessary and could disadvantage other patients."
Ms Harrison also said there are no prescription medicine shortages as a result of Covid-19.
It is understood that while there have been some shortages of salbutamol, it is hoped that suppliers will be getting deliveries today.
However, the situation has underlined the importance that patients do not abuse the prescription service as it has the possibility to put lives at risk.
On Tuesday, a leading medic, Dr Laurence Dorman, chair of the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland, urged patients to only order inhalers when medically required.
He said: "If you need an inhaler, then of course you should request a prescription for one, but if you haven't used one in 15 years, it isn't going to help."
Meanwhile, high street chemists have come under increasing pressure in recent weeks as the number of people seeking medical attention has risen.
It comes as the key NHS service was already struggling amid a workforce shortage and chronic underfunding.
Paula Bradshaw MLA, Alliance Party health spokeswoman, said: "I have been alarmed by some of the information I have received from community pharmacists who are above and beyond their already-heavy workload to meet the demands of their treasured customers during this troubling time.
"Tales of patients needlessly getting prescriptions for conditions that are not serious, leading to a shortage or, in some cases, total unavailability of medicines that are life-saving for others.
"I have also heard of community pharmacists having to make modifications to the layout of their premises, to protect their staff and customers, at their own cost, bringing in more staff to cope with the pressures with no indication from the Department of Health that they are going to receive any additional funding to meet this extra cost.
"And, vitally, the lack of provision of personal protective equipment.
"Surely, our community pharmacy staff need this as a matter of urgency."
Gerard Greene, chief executive of Community Pharmacy NI, has said that high street chemists are coming under increasing pressure as a result of Covid-19.
"Tens of thousands more people have flocked to pharmacies on a daily basis, as the Covid-19 crisis has deepened," he said.
"We would like to remind the public that community pharmacists are front line health workers who must be protected from getting sick, so they can continue to deliver a service to those who need it.
"As a result, we will be changing how we work in community pharmacy and would ask for public support to manage this.
"There will be significantly reduced access to pharmacies.
"Access will be restricted to keep low numbers inside pharmacies.
"New counters are also being put in place in many pharmacies to help manage social distancing requirements.
"In addition, patients should be flexible and allow pharmacies up to 48 hours to get repeat medicines ready for collection once forms are handed into the pharmacy. Again, please be patient with these changes."
He also stressed that people should not visit their community pharmacy if they are unwell or experiencing Covid-19 symptoms.
"Please be mindful that we need pharmacy teams to remain well so the service remains in place," he said.
"Pharmacists will ensure everyone gets their medicines and that supplies are managed safely."