The British Medical Association (BMA) has renewed its call for England to abolish prescription charges, after it was announced that they will rise from £7.20 to £7.40 on April 1 and Scotland abolishes them altogether.

The government in England  "should be following the lead set by the three other nations in the UK and making plans to abolish them," said Hamish Meldrum, chairman of council at the BMA.

The current system is "a chaotic and unfair mess - patients in England have to pay, while those in Wales and Northern Ireland do not," and from April 1 Scotland will completely scrap its charges, "a move that further exaggerates the absurd postcode lottery that exists in the UK," said Dr Meldrum.

"The bureaucracy needed to administer prescription charges is cumbersome, many of the exemptions are confusing and unfair. Patients with disabling long-term conditions still have to pay them, despite a recent report recommending they be phased out," he added.

The BMA accepts that these are financially difficult times, said Dr Meldrum but, he added: "this is 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 medicine." 

Responding to the BMA's charges, a Department of Health official pointed out to the BBC that around 90% of prescription items in England are already dispensed free of charge, and that the price of the 12-month prescription pre-payment certificate is to be frozen for the second year running, allowing patients to get all the prescriptions they need for an average of £2 a week.

Moreover, abolishing prescription charges in England would lead to a shortfall for the NHS of more than £450 million a year, equivalent to the salary costs of nearly 18,000 nurses, or 15,000 midwives or more than 3,500 consultants, the official added.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) pledged to scrap prescription charges during its election campaign in 2007, and since then the price has dropped each year. Last week, the Scottish Parliament's health committee voted to finally remove the charge, which now stands at £3, defeating a last-minute attempt by Scottish Conservative Member of Parliament (MSP) Mary Scanlon, -  with the sole support of Liberal Democrat MSP Ross Finnie - to retain it. 

Scottish Public Health Minister Shona Robison described free prescriptions as "a long-term investment in improving health" and dismissed allegations that the measure "will only help those people who are described as rich." 

"If people are put off seeking appropriate care for financial reasons their health will not improve, but if patients can get the treatment they need it will not only help their health but ultimately help to reduce the longer-term costs to the health service as well," said Ms Robison. "Importantly, abolition will help all those people who have long-term health conditions which don't currently entitle them to exemptions," she added.