Childless couples are to be guaranteed just one chance of having a test-tube baby on the NHS, the Government will announce this week.

John Reid, the Health Secretary, has decided that the health service cannot afford to implement the recommendation of its own rationing body.

The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) will recommend that couples suffering fertility problems should be allowed at least three "cycles" of IVF treatment.

The ruling, due out on Wednesday, was supposed to end the so-called "postcode lottery" in fertility treatment in which NHS trusts in England and Wales offer varying degrees of help.

It says that women aged between 23 and 39 should be entitled to three attempts at "fresh embryo transfer" on the NHS.

Currently a quarter of English trusts do not pay for any IVF treatment, forcing couples who can afford it to seek private treatment at a cost of around £4,000 for each attempt.

Ministers have balked at estimated costs of an extra £100 million a year to guarantee three cycles of IVF to the 46,000 eligible couples who seek the treatment, however, and will approve just one.

Mr Reid will also say that the free NHS fertility treatment should only be available to those couples who do not have children.

With no prospect of additional funding from Government to cover the cost of three lots of free IVF treatment for all childless couples, local trusts warned that other services would inevitably suffer.

News of Mr Reid's decision was met with dismay by campaigners last night.

A report from the All-Party Group on Infertility to be published tomorrow will say that the estimated bills have been inflated.

The true cost of meeting the NICE recommendation in full could be closer to £36 million, the body will say.

The report by the body of MPs and peers will say that a potential saving of tens of millions of pounds could be made by targeting IVF treatment more effectively.

Its chairman, Kevin Barron, the Labour MP for Rother Valley, said he would be "very disappointed" if the Government did not fund the full three cycles.

"Scotland already funds three cycles; it would be a great shame if England and Wales are not going to catch up," he said.

Richard Kennedy, secretary of the British Fertility Society, said: "One cycle of treatment - which is by and large the sort of level of provision now - provides an opportunity to get pregnant but does not provide a reasonable chance of a pregnancy."

Andrew Lansley, the Conservative spokesman on health, said: "One has to ask what is the purpose of NICE's guidelines if ministers arbitrarily reduce the standard that the NHS should aim for."

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