RPS calls for national emergency contraception service in England to end ‘postcode lottery’

Pharmacy bodies said a national service would improve health outcomes for women and tackle health inequalities.
hand holding emergency contraceptive pill in blister pack

Four representative bodies, including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), have called for the next government to commission a national Emergency Hormonal Contraception (EHC) service across community pharmacies in England that is free at the point of access.

In a statement published on 25 June 2024, the RPS, Company Chemists’ Association (CCA), National Pharmacy Association (NPA) and Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) said current arrangements were “inadequate for women”.

“The NPA, CCA, RPS and FSRH are calling for an end to the postcode lottery and for women of all ages to be able to access a nationally commissioned EHC service from their local community pharmacy,” the statement said.

They added that there is an “incomplete understanding” of the availability of EHC services that are free at point of access, no national standards to underpin the services and no national training requirements for pharmacists and pharmacy teams.

The organisations highlighted that, as services are commissioned by local authorities, they cannot be promoted nationally.

The statement added that these issues “could be transformed” through the commissioning of a nationwide EHC service, “mirroring the successful approaches adopted in Scotland and Wales”, which would not only improve access and health outcomes for women but directly tackle health inequalities.

EHC services are commissioned by an estimated 90% of local authorities in England, but around 48% of community pharmacies are included in these services.

EHC has been provided free of charge from pharmacies in Scotland since 2008 and from pharmacies in Wales since 2011.

Tase Oputu, chair of RPS in England, said this was resulting in “hugely inequality” in access to free emergency contraception across the UK.

“All women should have equal, free access to emergency contraception to help prevent unplanned pregnancies, just as they do with other methods of contraception. Amidst the cost-of-living crisis, having to pay for emergency contraception hits those on low incomes the hardest,” she said.

“We’re calling on the NHS to remedy this inconsistency and unfairness by commissioning a service that is applied across the country, removing uncertainty for women and reducing the burden on other healthcare services who are approached for prescriptions for emergency contraception.

“Community pharmacies have a long track record in providing safe, convenient access to emergency contraception and other contraceptive methods. Providing consistent, standardised access to emergency contraception will significantly benefit women and increase efficiencies across the NHS,” she added.

Earlier in 2024, almost 3,000 contractors had signed up to the expanded NHS England Pharmacy Contraception Service, which allows women access to the oral contraceptive pill free of charge.

Tier 1 of the service was first piloted in 2021 and commissioned by the NHS as an advanced service to run from April 2023, allowing community pharmacies to continue the ongoing supply of oral contraception initiated in general practice or sexual health clinics.

Tier 2 of the service, which includes both initiation and ongoing supply of oral contraception, was first piloted in 2022.

In November 2023, NHS England announced that the pharmacy contraception service would be expanded to allow all pharmacists to initiate patients on oral contraception from 1 December 2023, as part of its ‘Delivery plan for recovering access to primary care’.

Later that same month, Community Pharmacy England announced that all pharmacies wanting to provide the contraception service would have to provide both tiers from the end of February 2024.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, June 2024, Vol 312, No 7986;312(7986)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2024.1.322162

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