Prescription charges were introduced in 1951 / Rex Features

England is the only country in the UK which still imposes them

NHS prescription charges are “iniquitous”, “outdated” and should be scrapped, experts at a leading journal have said.

England is the only country in the UK which still imposes charges for prescriptions, which often significantly exceed the actual cost of the drug.

While the elderly, pregnant, some on a low income and those with certain long-term health conditions are exempted from prescription charges, 80 per cent of 18 to 59-year-olds still pay the £8.05 fees.

However, an editorial in the leading pharmaceuticals journal Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin, published today, argues that the charge is a “poorly conceived, manifestly unfair tax.”

Questioning why patients in England should be subject to an additional tax when they have already paid for the NHS through general taxation, the authors point out that the charge has been abolished in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England the charges are expected to rise over the next two years. 

The charge of £8.05 is in “stark comparison” with the price of many commonly prescribed medicines that are off patent and therefore legally allowed to be sold by more than one company, driving down prices. Aspirin now costs only 74 pence for 28 75mg pill, while some stains cost only £1.26 for 28 20mg pills.

Prescription charges have always been controversial. Their introduction in 1951 was viewed by many as going against the founding ideals of the NHS, and contributed to the resignation of the health minister and NHS founder Aneurin Bevan.

The authors of the Drugs and Therapeutics editorial argue that the bureaucracy involved in managing prescription fee exemptions, and the process by which hospitals refer outpatients back to their GP for a prescription, make the system inefficient and costly.

“Such charges are clearly outdated and iniquitous, and we believe it is time that politicians showed their commitment to a patient-centred NHS and abolish prescription charges in England,” they write.

However, it is unlikely the Government will drop the charges, given the current financial pressure on the NHS. The charges were abolished by the devolved health systems in Wales in 2007, in Northern Ireland in 2010 and in Scotland in 2011.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “Demands on the NHS are rising, with spending on medicines alone almost doubling since 2000 - so prescription charges remain an important source of revenue for the NHS in England. In increasing the single charge for the next two years, we are ensuring that costs are kept as low as possible and that patients with long term conditions are protected.”