Controversial proposals to change the market entry system for pharmacists, which critics claim would threaten the existence of the UK’s 5,872 dispensing doctors, have been thrown out by the government.

Following the “strength of responses” received on the various options for reform put forward in a consultation on the government’s Pharmacy White Paper, “there will be no change to the current arrangements for GPs dispensing medicines to their patients,” Phil Hope, the Minister responsible for pharmacy, told parliament on Tuesday.

The proposals sought to replace the current market entry system for pharmacists, which is based on the “necessary or expedient” test, with one based on assessment by Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) of local pharmaceutical needs.

The Dispensing Doctors Association (DDA), which strongly opposes any change, has pointed out that the current arrangements, under which patients who live more than a mile from a chemist can choose to have their medicines dispensed by their GP, have almost a century of proven track record of safety, efficacy and convenience. However, the proposed changes would present difficulties or inconvenience for 95% of patients living in rural areas and destabilise over 700 GP practices in England, resulting in job losses, service cutbacks and reduced access to essential services such as branch surgeries and home visits, the Association warned.

Opposition politicians have also opposed any change, and Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley described the Minister’s announcement as “a massive U-turn from the government. For months, they refused to acknowledge calls from us, patients and GPs to allow doctors to retain the ability to be able to dispense drugs. Had they gone ahead, there could have been disastrous consequences for patients in rural communities,” he said.

The news was also welcomed by Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb, who said: “at long last, common sense has prevailed. The government has finally listened to the concerns of people in rural areas but it would have been better if it had avoided raising the fears of a large numbers of patients in the first place - many of whom are elderly. It is extraordinary that the government was working so hard to undermine a successful and well-liked service.”

The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), which represents community pharmacy on NHS matters, was “not surprised” by the announcement, said its chief executive, Sue Sharpe.

“Dispensing doctors have argued in defence of the arrangements agreed between our two professions eight years ago. We have made it clear that we support the status quo. We acknowledge that dispensing by doctors remains necessary for some patients in rural areas for whom a pharmacy is not readily accessible,” she said.

Having said that, the PSNC remains of the view that, wherever possible, the public should be able to receive their NHS prescription medicines from their local pharmacy, although it accepts that this may not be viable in remote rural areas, Ms Sharpe added.

- Mr Hope also told Parliament that the responses received to the consultation on pharmaceutical provision in England are now being analysed, “and we will be making an announcement on these wider issues as soon as possible in the New Year.”