The £5.25 charge from April - a rise of 10.5 per cent at a time when nurses are being offered increases of 1 to 3 per cent - was condemned as a tax on the sick by Margaret Beckett, Labour's health spokesman. It was, she said, "utterly outrageous", coming on top of last year's 50p rise.
Opposition MPs accused Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, of running scared by disclosing the rise in a written answer on the day of the Northern Ireland framework documents instead of on Monday or Tuesday - both days on which the Commons debated the NHS.
It was an attempt "like a thief in the night" to slip through a "shameful increase", Alex Carlile, the Liberal Democrat spokesman said.
Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of council of the British Medical Association, said the increase was "iniquitous". The time had come for an independent review.
The rise, with a matching increase to £27.20 and £74.80 for the four and twelve-month season tickets, means the charge has risen 26-fold since 1979. The 20p levied in 1979 would be only 52p now if it had risen in line with inflation, Mrs Beckett said.
But Gerry Malone, the health minister, pointed out that 81 per cent of prescriptions were now dispensed free, against 60 per cent in 1979 - due to growing numbers of elderly, unemployed and people on in-work benefits - and the £5.25 charge remained "significantly less" than the average £8.80 cost of an NHS prescription, he said. Against that, more than half of all prescriptions now cost the NHS less than the charge to patients, although 22 per cent cost more than £10.
The charge will bring in £310m - money that Mr Malone said would help meet the nurses' and other pay awards - and was the equivalent of 75,000 hip replacement operations.
Ann Lewis, President of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said those just above benefit level were already forced to chose between medicines."Three medicines will now cost more than £15. Pharmacists are then put in the invidious position of having to decide with the patient which of the medicines to take. People take longer to get better, may have to visit their GPs unnecessarily and at worst may have hospital treatment. This adds to costs rather than saving them."
The maximum dental charge is to rise £25 to £300, and the value of spectacle vouchers is to increase by 3.5 per cent.Reuse content