Northern Ireland is to abolish prescription charges completely by April 2010, subject to approval by the Stormont Executive cabinet, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey has announced.

In an interim stage, the charge will be reduced from £7 to £3 per prescription from next January, and the cost of prepayment certificates will be cut from £35.85 for four months and from £98.70 to £25 from next April for a year until they are free.

Announcing the findings of a cost/benefit review into the issue, Ulster Unionist Mr McGimpsey said that a key consideration in coming to a decision had been the loss of around £13 million in annual income from prescription charges, which, although only 3.5% of the national drugs bill, was still ”a lot of money.”

“I also had to take account of concerns over increased demand from the public who may be more likely to ask for medication if it is free of charge,” he added, but he had concluded that the cost of free prescriptions could be found within the existing budget and without impacting on any existing service. The Minister also said he would be encouraging health care professionals to “prescribe sensibly.”

A cradle-to-grave health service, free at the point of delivery, is the founding principle of the National Health Service (NHS), said the Minister, adding: “it is a principle that I, and the entire population of Northern Ireland, wholeheartedly support.”

“It is simply unacceptable that those who are ill should have to worry about finding money for vital drugs which they cannot afford. This is totally against the ethos of a health service which promises free health and social care to all,” he went on.

All political parties in Northern Ireland welcomed the announcement, although the Democratic Unionists’ health spokeswoman, Iris Robinson, urged the Stormont Executive to consider the immediate abolition of prescription charges for cancer drugs.

Dr Brian Dunn of the British Medical Association (BMA) Northern Ireland described the announcement as “a very positive step forward,” and pointed out that it has been BMA policy since 2002 that prescriptions should be free to everyone.

- Prescription charges in Wales have already been abolished, and the Scottish Assembly has pledged to follow suit by 2011. Last week’s announcement by Prime Minister Gordon Brown that England would scrap the charge for cancer patients and eventually, for all people with long-term conditions, led to calls for Northern Ireland’s leaders to act speedily on the recommendations of the review.