Five months after Boots bowed to public pressure and promised to reduce the price of emergency contraception, it has made good on its promise in less than 3% of its stores.
After weeks of controversy last summer over its stance on the price of its generic brand of emergency hormonal contraception (EHC), levonorgestrel – during which the pharmacy chain said it could not reduce the cost in case it encouraged women to have unprotected sex – Boots relented and said the price would drop from £26.75 to £15.99 from October.
But it said on Wednesday the price had been reduced in only 69 of its 2,500 stores nationwide. A letter last month signed by more than 130 MPs expressed disappointment that cheaper prices for the morning-after pill had not been extended more widely.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which led the initial campaign asking Boots to reduce the price in line with other pharmacies, said the fact the price remained unchanged in the vast majority of branches was “absolutely scandalous”.
Boots said the delay was due to low stock as a result of “batch failure” and said it offered a free NHS service for EHC in most stores. To be eligible for a free contraceptive pill, a customer needs a prescription from a GP or family planning clinic, according to the Boots website.
“We remain committed to rolling this service out nationally,” said a Boots UK spokesperson. “Unfortunately the manufacturer has experienced a batch failure due to quality issues which means that the stock we were expecting is not now available, and we are now waiting for a new batch to be produced. We thank our customers for their continued patience and reassure them that we are doing all we can to roll this service out to all our stores as soon as possible.
“In July we launched an extended over-the-counter EHC service which includes the generic levonorgestrel in 38 Boots stores in the East Midlands. We’re pleased to confirm that we have now been able to roll this out to a further 31 stores, taking the total number of Boots stores offering the service to 69.”
The letter from MPs to Boots, written by Sharon Hodgson, the shadow minister for public health, said it was of particular importance to lower prices for the Christmas period.
Over this time, Hodgson wrote, “many women struggle to access contraceptive services and their usual family planning method. As a result, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, reports that they see an increased number of women facing an unplanned pregnancy following the festive season.
“Clearly, pharmacy access to emergency contraception is of an even greater importance in December and January.”
BPAS tweeted that it was best to “give Boots a miss”.
The charity said in a statement it was “absolutely scandalous that Boots have failed to deliver on the clear pledge they made to roll out cheaper emergency contraception in all their stores”.
It added: “There can be absolutely no excuse for their pathetically slow pace of progress, other than the fact that they simply do not want to provide women with an affordable product. If Boots cannot source a new version of emergency contraception to sell at a lower price, then they should do the right thing and cut the price of the version they currently have in stock.
“Regardless of supply chain delays, affordable emergency contraception is entirely within their gift to give right now – and every day they refuse to do so, more women are being ripped off, or risking an unplanned pregnancy because they cannot afford Boots’ inflated price tag.”
Boots made the commitment to lower the price of its generic morning-after pill in July. It had previously caused outrage by refusing to do so in case it encouraged women to have sex. It said in a statement: “We would not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product.”
Even at the reduced price of £15.99, the Boots morning-after pill would still be £2.49 more expensive than products sold by rival pharmacies including Superdrug, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda.
On Wednesday, Boots renewed its call for NHS England to make emergency contraception available to women who need it, as the health service in Scotland and Wales already does. “We are inviting our MPs to work with us to make EHC available free from pharmacies to all women in England and end the current postcode lottery on availability either due to location or age,” it said.