Welsh election: Tory U-turn on free prescriptions

By Catrin Haf Jones
BBC Wales political correspondent

Published
image copyrighteyegelb/getty
image captionPrescriptions have been free for all patients in Wales for 14 years

After more than a decade of opposition to free prescriptions in Wales, the Conservatives have announced a change in policy for May's Senedd election.

In 2012, Tory Senedd leader Andrew RT Davies called the policy subsidising paracetamol for millionaires.

The party now says maintaining free prescriptions would be "at the heart" of its offer to older people, as well as remaining free for everyone else.

Welsh Labour ministers introduced free prescriptions for all patients in 2007.

Plaid Cymru supported that decision at the time and since.

Announcing the new Conservative stance, Mr Davies said that the "dynamics in the health service had changed because of coronavirus" and that he did "not believe the energies of the Welsh government should be directed at removing free prescriptions, which we will guarantee for the five years of the next Welsh Parliament".

The Tories and Liberal Democrats abstained in the vote to introduce free prescriptions in Wales in 2007.

In 2017, Mr Davies told BBC Wales higher earners should have to pay for their prescriptions.

"I don't think it's unreasonable for people who earn enough to pay 40% tax to pay for their prescription, while protecting free prescriptions for the majority of people," he said then.

"When you can get paracetamol on the NHS, when they cost 20-30p, then surely a small donation to pay for that would release more funds for valuable services that we know are under pressure?"

image captionAndrew RT Davies took over as leader of the Conservatives in Cardiff Bay for the second time in January

Setting out his party's new policy, he said the plan was to use the "record amounts of money made available to the Welsh NHS because of consequentials [money the Welsh Government receives due to increased spending in England on matters ministers in Cardiff are responsible for in Wales] that have flowed from the UK government" to maintain free prescriptions for everyone.

"If you vote Welsh Conservatives you'll be guaranteed free prescriptions for the lifetime of the next parliament, as well as dealing with the chronic waiting times that Labour have allowed to spiral out of control here in Wales," he said.

"We don't think it's right to reimpose prescription charges here in Wales when one in five people are on waiting lists because of Labour's neglect of the NHS."

WALES ELECTION: THE BASICS

What elections are happening? On 6 May, people across Wales will vote to elect 60 Members of the Senedd (MSs). The party or parties that can command the support of a majority of members will form the Welsh government. Find out more here.

What powers does the Welsh Parliament have? MSs pass laws on many aspects of day-to-day life in Wales, such as health, education and transport. They also have control over some taxes. Defence, foreign policy and immigration are decided by the UK Parliament.

How do I vote? Anyone who lives in Wales and is registered to vote is eligible, so long as they are aged 16 or over on the day of the election. You can register to vote online.

The announcement comes as part of the Conservatives' pledge to "help older people across Wales remain active members of their family, community and society, whilst providing security for their future by maintaining free prescriptions and free bus travel".

In England, the NHS prescription charge under Conservative ministers is currently £9.35 per item.

Asked if Westminster Conservative colleagues could prevent their party in Wales from providing free prescriptions, Mr Davies said that was "complete rubbish".

Leaders debate: If you would like to be part of the virtual audience for the BBC Wales Election 2021 Leaders Debate on 29 April, please email us your details to waleslive@bbc.co.uk.

How have rival parties responded to the Conservative change of heart?

A Welsh Labour spokesperson called the policy reversal a "pre-election stunt" by a party that had "never believed in free prescriptions, and no-one should fall for this latest swindle".

"They have been obsessed with scrapping free prescriptions ever since they were introduced by Welsh Labour," the spokesperson said.

"Where they're in power in England, the Tories have raised the cost of prescriptions each and every year - now charging ill people £9.35 per item."

Plaid Cymru's Dr Dai Lloyd said the "Tories' record in office is one of punishing senior citizens".

"The triple-hit of unfair pension policies, mean-spirited means-tested allowances and broken promises on social care proves the Tories cannot be trusted," he said.

"Their endless cycle of making then scrapping commitments to cap care costs in England is a sign of the further harm that would come in Wales under a Tory Welsh government."

A spokesperson for the Welsh Liberal Democrats said the party would "maintain free prescriptions for all" and "guarantee funding for over-60s concessionary bus passes, and introduce free bus pass for under-25s by 2025".

The party says it would also "introduce a Bill of Rights to incorporate UN Conventions into Welsh Law, including on the UN Principles for Older People, into Welsh law".

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