Superdrug has become the latest pharmacy to warn of supply issues with penicillin and amoxicillin amid a surge in cases of group A streptococcus.

The health retailer, which has about 200 in-store pharmacies across the UK and Ireland, said it was working with wholesalers and doctors to manage demand and supply of the drugs, which are the main treatments for strep A.

“We’re aware that there are some issues with the supply of antibiotics,” said a Superdrug spokeswoman. “However, we are working closely with our wholesalers to monitor stock levels.

“Supporting people’s healthcare needs is always our priority and we’re also working closely with patients and their doctors to source their medication or a suitable alternative.”

Meanwhile, Boots is opting not to advise customers to use its online prescription stock checker to establish whether the drugs are available at a particular store, because supplies are moving so quickly the system cannot keep up. A spokeswoman nevertheless insisted availability in stores was “generally good” while acknowledging a number had been waiting for supplies.

The UK Health Security Agency recorded 6,601 notifications scarlet fever, which is caused by strep A, between 12 September and 4 December, compared with 2,538 at the same point in the year during the last comparably high season in 2017 to 2018. 

Symptoms are usually mild but on rare occasions the bacterial infection can cause more serious illness. It has led to the deaths of 16 children across the UK, according to UKHSA, and parents have been warned to watch for symptoms including a sore throat, headache, fever and pinkish rash.

The Department of Health and Social Care is “urgently” working with manufacturers to get stock to where it is needed, but has repeatedly denied there is a supply shortage, despite reports to the contrary from pharmacists.

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

The Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies accused the government of failing to prepare following an early surge in cases and repeated warnings of medicine supply chain issues.

AIM CEO Leyla Hannbeck said medicine was taking longer to manufacturer in the wake of the pandemic, and the association had been warning the government of supply issues since the start of the year.

“One of the biggest factors here is a lack of planning, no matter what the Department of Health says,” said Hannbeck.

“They keep point-blank saying to our faces there are no supply issues. I’m saying look at the screenshots [from our computers] saying the wholesalers don’t have it. I’m wondering, are they lying or are you?

“It becomes available for a very short time, and you are allowed to order maybe five packs, and it runs out immediately.

“Pharmacists are getting up at 3am to see if there is something they can order, and the supply is very patchy. You don’t know when it’s next going to become available.

“These antibiotics are not just for strep. They are for a lot of other conditions too.”

Hannbeck said surging wholesale prices meant pharmacists were also dispensing the medicines at a loss, as the amount they paid outstripped compensation received from the NHS.