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COVID-19: Government has 'no plans' to drop script charge in England

NHS prescriptions are already free of charge in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales
NHS prescriptions are already free of charge in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

Despite calls from the pharmacy sector to lift the NHS prescription charge in England during COVID-19, the government has “no plans” to do so, it said on Tuesday (June 2).

The NHS prescription fee – which was recently raised to £9.15 per item – is a “valuable source of income” for the NHS, Conservative peer Lord Bethell, who was appointed under secretary of state at the Department of Health and Social Care (DH) in March, said on Tuesday.

Lord Bethell was asked by Lord Rennard, a Liberal Democrat peer, what assessment has been made of the “the case for suspending charging for prescriptions in England to assist pharmacies and patients by removing the need to collect and pay such charges during the COVID-19 pandemic”.

However, the government has now said it will not be temporarily lifting the charge in England. NHS prescriptions are already free of charge in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Last month, C+D called for the script charge to be scrapped during the COVID-19 pandemic to alleviate the administrative burden on pharmacies and reduce the risk of infection for pharmacy teams. This included an open letter to health secretary Matt Hancock.

The campaign was backed by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), and Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who wrote a blog outlining why the charge should be suspended during the outbreak – arguing that it would “provide significant relief to pharmacists”.

In April, the PSNC wrote a joint letter to health secretary Matt Hancock, stating that the prescription charge in England should be dropped for the duration of the pandemic as it places pharmacy teams “at increased risk through unnecessary contact” with patients. The letter, also signed by the British Medical Association and the Dispensing Doctors’ Association, recommended “a temporary removal of the prescription charge” during the pandemic, something the three organisations said would create a “smoother and safer prescription procedure”.

Last month (May 22), the PSNC called attention to the potential risk of COVID-19 transmission for pharmacy teams in England as a result of having to switch paper prescriptions when the back of the form has not been filled in correctly. The negotiating body urged the DH and NHS Business Services Authority to “review their processes around the switching of paper prescriptions” to reduce the risk of infection for pharmacy teams.

Government response “very disappointing”

Professor Claire Anderson, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s England board, told C+D yesterday (June 3) that the government’s response to the proposal to suspend the prescription charge is “very disappointing”.

“We support a pause in prescription charges for patients in England during the COVID-19 pandemic because this would free up pharmacist’s time, reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and support patients’ access to medicines,” she added.

Simon Dukes, chief executive of the PSNC, told C+D today (June 4) that he finds the news “disappointing”, given the “increased administrative burden and safety issues that collecting prescription charges poses for pharmacies during the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Do you think the prescription charge should be suspended during COVID-19?

Kevin Western, Community pharmacist

why would they, it costs them more or less nothing to collect, all the risk, financial and health is ours, they get loads of free money when we mess up, they are on a winner. 

A.S. Singh, Community pharmacist

Completely right Kevin. Isn't it funny how it's turned into an us vs them in the pharmacy world?

Soon-To-Be Ex-Pharmacist, Superintendent Pharmacist

Been like that for ages, mate!

Joan Richardson, Locum pharmacist

It is too late to suspend the prescription charge now as we are well into this pandemic.

The issue is not so much collecting the charge as trying to check the exemption status of patients in order to ensure that prescriptions are not switched.  Trying to point at the back of a token in order to help a patient whilst maintaining 2m distance is difficult.  If all were exempt then the handing over process requires less contact with the patient.

John Cleese, Production & Technical

Of course they weren't going to drop the prescription charge. Only a small number of people pay it anyway, and of those that do, they're all between 16 and 59 by definition and 99% will have contactless cards, and it takes seconds whatever method you use, so a negligible extra risk of infection. We still have to hand over the dispensed medicines, give/take tokens, check the exemption proof, sell OTC medicines, counsel them face to face, etc. And as for the "administrative burden" angle, this one is minor.

Ben Merriman, Community pharmacist

The issue isn't taking payment for the few paid Rx that are presented. It's getting the exemption status and getting the Rx signed for the non age exempt ones!

Soon-To-Be Ex-Pharmacist, Superintendent Pharmacist

The script charge should be scrapped full stop so that the UK NHS operates as a NATIONAL health service not a regional one. However, all of the reasoning in this article is skewed because the cash handling and admin from script charges is minimal - you're as likely to catch covid from an unpaid green Rx as you are a paid one, more likely to get it from an exempt token if you give it to the patient to sign (and I still do that because it's their responsibility not mine) and there's always hand gel!

M M, Community pharmacist

I agree. Think of all those fp10s we take in, only to then worry about taking rx payment, like seriously? Besides, it's a bit late scrapping the fees now anyway. March/April time, all these measures should have been put in place.

C A, Community pharmacist

Lucky and Musa, from my prespective the problem isn't handling FP10s or Tokens, the problem is all the "shielding" patients that send in friends and family that have no idea if the patient pays or not. If you get it wrong the script could be switched, and you're out of pocket. Or the patient could be fined and there will be a mess to sort out three months down the road. 

And that's before you have to sort out the volunteers who just have a list of names and don't even know the patient, or the great hordes that want it delivered as they don't want to come out/queue or their mother/father/sibling/friend gets it delivered and they want the same service because they percieve they are entitled to it, and you have to arrange payment over the phone first.

It all takes extra time, during a crisis where demand is through the roof and staff/resources are at a minimum

Soon-To-Be Ex-Pharmacist, Superintendent Pharmacist

You are the rightest person I've come across for quite some time!

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