The cost of prescriptions in England will go up by 20 pence to £7.85, health minister Lord Howe has announced, reigniting the debate over the fairness of charges throughout the UK.

Prescription charges were abolished in Wales in 2007, Northern Ireland in 2010 and Scotland in 2011, leaving a rather bitter taste in the mouths of patients in England who are still being asked to pay for their medicines, in what the British Medical Association has previously described as "a chaotic and unfair mess".

The government has long argued that around 90% of prescription items in England are already dispensed free of charge because of exemptions, and that abolishing charges in the country would create a shortfall for the NHS of more than £450 million a year.

In addition, the cost of a prescription prepayment certificate (PPC) will remain at £29.10 for a three-month certificate and £104 for an annual one, offering savings for those needing four or more items within three months or 14 or more items in one year.

Nevertheless, The Royal Pharmaceutical Society said it is deeply disappointed with the move, and opposition remains strong.

“We know from speaking to patients of working age who pay for their prescriptions that cost can be a major barrier to them getting the life-saving medicines they need," said Neal Patel, spokesperson for the Society.

Doing without?

“Every day pharmacists are asked which medicines they can ‘do without’ – the answer is none of them as they have been prescribed to manage their particular condition. Patients who don’t take the medicines they need often end up with an admission to hospital which is far more expensive for the NHS in the long-run," he argued.

On behalf of the Prescription Charges Coalition, David Barker, chief executive of Crohn’s and Colitis UK, argued that prescription charges have risen every year since 1979, significantly higher than inflation. "The Minister must consider the impact this further increase will have on those who are already struggling to afford the essential medication required to keep them well," he stressed.

Joseph Clift, Policy Manager at the British Heart Foundation, said prescription charges in England "should be free but instead people with heart disease are facing up to yet another increase. It’s an incredibly bitter pill to swallow".

And Hamish Meldrum, one-time chairman of council at the BMA, previously slammed the charge as "a tax on the sick that contributes only a modest amount to the NHS budget and does not offset the unfair disadvantage of asking the ill to pay for their medicines".