Prescription drugs go online in pharmacies shake-up

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Prescription-only drugs will be available more widely over the internet in England and Wales as part of government plans to allow community pharmacists to provide easier opening hours for customers.

Prescription-only drugs will be available more widely over the internet in England and Wales as part of government plans to allow community pharmacists to provide easier opening hours for customers.

The plans, to be announced today by Rosie Winterton, the Health minister, will allow licences to be granted to internet and mail order pharmacies, plus chemists in out-of-town shopping centres and in supermarkets that stay open for more than 100 hours a week.

Internet pharmacies will be subject to the same checks as corner-shop pharmacies, and customers will be required to supply a prescription before receiving their drugs. Two companies are already trading legally over the internet, but the Government is now planning for the first time to allow pharmacies to apply more generally for internet licences.

Ms Winterton said last night that the aim of the changes was to give more convenient pharmacy services to customers. She denied claims that allowing greater competition would lead to widespread closures of high street chemists.

"We are providing a balanced package of proposals, which combine improved services for customers with safeguards for community pharmacists, many of whom are small businesses. These plans should not lead to widespread closures, as some have suggested," she said.

The Government has rejected the recommendation by the Office of Fair Trading for deregulation to force greater competition in pharmacy services and prices. Ministers said they sought to reach a compromise to avoid driving corner shop chemists out of business.

Supermarkets and drug chain stores, who have been pressing the Government for the freedom to open pharmacies, have won a partial victory, but strict rules will be imposed to avoid a "free for all".

The tight restrictions on licences to open pharmacies will be lifted for four types of pharmacy:

* Internet and mail order, covered by professional pharmacy checks.

* Twenty-four-hour supermarkets where the pharmacy remains open for at least 100 hours a week.

* Out of town shopping centres where the retail area, excluding car parks, covers 15,000 square metres. Community pharmacists could also move into shopping malls to take competition to the supermarkets, Department of Health officials said

* Primary care centres offering a wide range of health services, such as optometry and chiropody, and serving at least 20,000 people. Small GP practices will not be licensed to open pharmacies in their surgeries.

Sue Sharpe, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, said: "We are pleased that Ms Winterton has recognised the need to protect local pharmacies. Pharmacies in large supermarkets provide a valuable service ... provided they do not kill off local pharmacies."

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