Thousands of couples are being denied fertility treatment on the NHS despite government guidelines stating that they should have access to help.

Eight out of 10 primary care trusts admit that their criteria for offering IVF treatments are more strict than those recommended by the National Institute for Clinical and Healthcare Excellence (Nice). And the majority say it will take at least three years - if ever - to reach the Government target of offering three free cycles to all infertile couples.

Claire Brown, of the Infertility Network UK, said: "Couples are just devastated by this. They were told that the Nice guidelines would end the postcode lottery of fertility treatment but it is still going on. Infertility is an illness and yet these people are being denied a possible cure.

"We need proper funding ... not just lip service and gimmicky headlines."

In 2004, Nice recommended that infertile couples should be offered three full cycles of IVF treatment, providing they met certain criteria. The guidelines are not legally enforceable and many primary care trusts (PCTs) warned at the time that they would not be able to meet the cost of providing such access. A cycle of IVF costs about £3,000.

The Government set a target for trusts of providing at least one cycle by April last year. A survey by Nice itself of PCTs has found that while 95 per cent say they are offering one cycle, 80 per cent said that their local criteria were more strict than the guidelines set down by Nice.

Additional restrictions include denying treatment to couples where one or both partners has had children in a previous relationship, or refusing to treat people who have previously paid for IVF privately.

Ms Brown said that in other regions, couples were being denied referral to a clinic until the woman was 34 and refused treatment until she is 36, even though the Nice guidelines said that all women aged 23 to 39 should be helped. Some PCTs are also refusing to fund certain types of treatment such as ICSI (intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection), a procedure that is especially effective in treating male infertility.

Six out of 10 PCTs said it would take three years to implement the Nice guideline of three free cycles, and a quarter of the 60 per cent said they had no timetable to achieve that target. The Government has not given PCTs extra money to fund the guidelines, and many trusts are struggling with multimillion-pound deficits.

In a separate study, researchers from Sheffield University said reducing the number of twins and triplets born as a result of IVF could lead to huge savings to the NHS. A single IVF pregnancy costs £3,313 in terms of pre-natal monitoring and childbirth, while twins cost £9,122 and triplets £32,354.