The Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham Health Authority, says it is vital that its GPs should be able to make the drugs available to the local population, many of whom travel frequently to Africa. Four times as many cases of malaria, a potentially life-threatening disease, are reported in south- east London as in the rest of England and Wales.
The authority has the backing of local medical and pharmaceutical committees, and pharmacists have been assured that they will be reimbursed if they dispense the drugs.
However, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said yesterday that the authority would be breaking the law if it went ahead. "They are going to have to rethink their policy because it is illegal," she said.
Under regulations which came into effect in February last year, a GP can only write a private prescription for anti-malarial drugs. The Government's attitude is that if people can afford foreign holidays then they should budget for the drugs. Anti-malarials which have other clinical uses, such as the treatment of gout, can be prescribed on an NHS prescription, but for those conditions only.
A health authority spokeswoman said discussions with the Department were under way, but denied it was acting illegally. "Our understanding is that the Department has guidelines, not regulations, on this."
Simon Hughes, spokesman on health for the Liberal Democrats, whose brother Richard died of malaria after returning from honeymoon in Kenya in 1992, welcomed the health authority's decision, and hailed it as a "landmark" policy.
He urged other authorities to follow suit, and said that free anti-malarial drugs would not only prevent malaria, but would also save money spent on hospital treatment in this country.
"The Government must take this message very seriously. If it does not restore free travel vaccines, then health authorities will do so even if they have to break the law to do it," he said. "I call on other health authorities to follow the brave lead set by Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, for the public health, but also for financial savings."
A survey by the health authority found that in 1995, 270 cases were identified in its area, of which only 75 were formally reported.
Most of the victims were British residents of African descent who caught the illness while on trips to Nigeria, Ghana or Uganda. They often had not taken precautions because they believed themselves immune after previously living in a malarial country.