Dear Ken Jarrold,
I am writing regarding your ongoing work overseeing the decriminalisation of inadvertent dispensing errors for pharmacy professionals.
In 2013, when you were appointed as chair of the Department of Health's (DH) board tasked with "rebalancing" medicines legislation, I wrote an article urging you and your team not to leave this vital issue “in the long grass”.
Having spoken to you since then, and reported on the outcomes of your board's meetings, I have no doubt that you are working hard to introduce a legal defence from criminal prosecution for an inadvertent error. I also appreciate that getting any change to the law passed by parliament is a complex and sluggish process.
Yet while we have passed numerous milestones on the road to decriminalisation – including its approval by parliamentary lawyers, and a public consultation on the law change – there appears to be no end in sight. Instead, we must be content with pharmacy minister David Mowat’s vague assurance earlier this month that the change will happen “shortly”.
When you were appointed as board chair, the spectre of Elizabeth Lee still hung heavy over the sector. You may remember that she was the locum pharmacist who supplied propanolol instead of the prescribed prednisolone to cancer patient Carmel Sheller, who later died.
Ms Lee received a three-month suspended jail term in 2009. Although this sentence was later quashed on appeal, the traumatic experience led her to vow never to return to practice.
As I write this letter, these fears have been brought to the fore once again by the case of Martin White. The Northern Irish pharmacist received a four-month suspended sentence in December for making the same error as Ms Lee – accidentally dispensing propranolol instead of prednisolone – in the hours before a patient’s unfortunate death in 2014.
According to the BBC, the court heard Mr White had previously mentioned his “low mood and tiredness” to his GP, and has since expressed “deep regret and sorrow” for the patient’s death.
The sentencing has been decried by a pharmacy lawyer and C+D’s clinical editor, and has led to more than 1,750 pharmacists and members of the public signing a petition calling for the profession to "stop being criminalised for being human".
After years of delays, the community pharmacy sector deserves to know when the government estimates decriminalisation will finally take place. Yet when C+D asked the DH for a timeframe this month, it was told it will "announce proposed changes to the law in due course”. When pharmacists and their staff are living every day with the threat of criminal prosecution, this statement does not offer any reassurance.
I would therefore be grateful if you could update C+D, and pharmacists across the UK, on when you realistically think the legal defence from inadvertent dispensing errors will be passed into law.
Pharmacists are expected to be open and honest about any dispensing errors they make. It seems only fair that they receive the same transparency in return.