Although they stressed that there was still a long way to go, campaigners urging the Government to make emergency contraception easier to get were optimistic. Until now it has only been available on prescription from a doctor or clinic.
The change could be introduced under new rules which will allow pharmacists to sell drugs prescribed in batches by GPs. Schering Health Care, which makes the contraceptives, plans to apply to make them available through the new route.
Last night the public health minister, Tessa Jowell, said safeguards would have to be put in place to prevent teenagers from using the drugs as routine contraception.
"If they were to be made available it would have to be within the context of advice and support. There can be no question of this being simply like going to buy a bottle of aspirins," she said.
The campaign to make the pills easier to get was launched 10 days ago by the Birth Control Trust, with the backing of MPs including Dr Jenny Tonge, Liberal Democrat member for Richmond Park and a former family planning doctor.
Other organisations which support the move include the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
They said Britain had the worst record of unwanted pregnancies in Europe, with 7,500 under-16s becoming pregnant each year. Half of them have abortions, and the reformers say many teenagers would avoid this trauma if they could buy the contraceptives.
Figures released by the Government last week showed that the use of the pills, which can be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex, had almost doubled in the past five years.
In 1993 around 380,000 women sought emergency contraception, but by 1997 the figure had risen to around 730,000. The cost of the drugs to the health service had also risen rapidly.
Dr Tonge said the emergency pills were very safe and, at around pounds 10 per time across the chemists' counter, would be too expensive to be abused by many teenagers.
"You get younger women who really aren't brave enough to run the gauntlet of a family planning clinic or a clinic. Teenagers can buy sufficient aspirin or paracetamol from a petrol station to do themselves gross harm, yet this method, which could save so much trauma, is not easily available," she said.
The shadow health spokesman, Ann Widdecombe, said she would oppose the move. The NHS should have other priorities, she said.Reuse content