IN the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, it was announced that prescription charges in England would rise to £9.15 per item on April 1.
Some could be forgiven for thinking it was an April Fool, that the government would not do this at a time of national crisis, but it was sadly true. This was on top of increases which had occurred annually for some years.
In contrast with the other three home nations, which all have free prescriptions, the increase in charges was a slap in the face to those in England who would have to pay for them.
When the NHS was established in 1946, the free medical service included free prescriptions. Charges were were introduced in 1952 by the new Conservative government and have risen consistently since then, under both Labour and Conservative governments.
With the introduction of devolved government for three of the home countries, they were given powers to deal with health matters. In 2007 the devolved Wales government abolished prescription charges, followed by Northern Ireland in 2010 and Scotland in 2011.
This left England on its own as the only home country where prescription charges still applied, and since then they have continued to rise, so those in England are suffering a greater inequality than a few years ago.
The Prescription Charges Coalition said in 2017 that a third of working age patients did not collect their prescriptions because they could not afford them.
At the last General Election the Labour Party included the abolition of prescription charges in their election manifesto. This was seen as a popular policy by the Conservatives, who countered by giving the impression that they would seriously address all concerns about the future of the NHS.
The coronavirus crisis has put back any major plans the government may have had for the NHS. However delaying consideration of the free prescriptions issue would be a mistake for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the government has clearly said to the nation that ‘we are all in it together’. This cannot be the case if there are major inequalities in aspects of the health service in the United Kingdom.
The second reason is that the government has made it clear it will spend ‘whatever it takes’ to see the nation through this Covid-19 crisis. That has to include making prescriptions as accessible as possible, so that patients can take whatever medications their doctors prescribe for them.
The third reason is that there is no logic left in the way the government decides who should pay prescription charges. There are so many exemptions (for example over-60s, who account for six out of ten prescriptions, and children under 16) that approximately 90 per cent of English patients do not pay for them. Often these are people who could afford to pay. It would save a lot of time and bureaucracy to scrap charges for the final 10 per cent.
In September last year the King’s Fund said that the English NHS would lose about £575million if all prescriptions were free. This is a minuscule sum from the 2019 NHS budget of £135billion, and it pales into insignificance compared with the huge sums spent on countering the Covid-19 virus, or even the £320million recently committed by the government annually for five years to world vaccine-related work. Surely it is important to ensure accessible and affordable healthcare for all in the UK first, before dishing out money on questionable overseas aid projects?
The fourth reason is that the three other home countries are in effect subsidised by the UK government, which indirectly pays for their free prescriptions. The best way to resolve this inequality is for the UK government to give a subsidy to the English too.
Most importantly, it would demonstrate that we ‘are all in it together’.