Boots has said it is “truly sorry” for its response to calls to cut the cost of one of its morning-after pills.
The pharmaceutical company was criticised after telling the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) it was avoiding “incentivising inappropriate use”.
It now says it is looking for cheaper alternatives to the Levonelle brand.
The firm said it “sincerely” apologised for its “poor choice of words” over the emergency contraception pricing.
The progestogen-based drug Levonelle costs £28.25 in Boots, with a non-branded equivalent priced at £26.75.
The branded drug costs £13.50 at Tesco and a generic version is £13.49 in Superdrug.
Claire Murphy from the BPAS welcomed the move by Boots but said it would keep up the pressure on the chain.
“Women struggle to access emergency contraception and the cost is a key barrier,” she said.
“It’s been wonderful to hear the women, and the men, of this country stand up and really make their voices heard in response to the position Boots originally took.”
But Laura Perrins from the blog Conservative Women said condemning a pharmacy for setting a price on a particular drug was itself a “form of moralising”.
She said Boots should not be forced to reduce the cost, saying Levonelle “is a drug that is unlike others and is a drug that can be given to under-age girls without parental consent”.
The BPAS has lobbied Boots to reduce the cost of the pill to make it more accessible for women having difficulty getting the drug quickly on the NHS.
The service also found the pills can cost up to five times more in the UK than in some parts of Europe.
Previously, Boots had defended its pricing plan for the pill, saying it was often contacted by individuals who criticise the company for providing the service.
It also said it “would not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product”.
The response led to some Labour MPs saying Boots had taken an “unacceptable” moral position, while health campaigners talked of a “sexist surcharge”.
The company later issued another statement, stating regret that its previous response had “caused offence and misunderstanding”.
It added: “The pricing of [emergency hormonal contraception] is determined by the cost of the medicine and the cost of the pharmacy consultation.
“We are committed to looking at the sourcing of less expensive EHC medicines, for example generics, to enable us to continue to make a privately-funded EHC service even more accessible in the future.
“In addition the NHS EHC service where it is locally commissioned, is provided for free in over 1,700 of our pharmacies, and we continue to urge the NHS to extend this free service more widely.”
Questions from pharmacists
The morning-after pill can be taken in the days after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.
In England, Levonelle and EllaOne are free of charge from most sexual health clinics, most GP surgeries and most NHS walk-in centres or urgent care centres, but they are free only to women in certain age groups from pharmacies in some parts of the country.
In Scotland and Wales, the emergency contraceptive pill is available free of charge on the NHS from pharmacies, GPs and sexual health clinics.
In Northern Ireland, some pharmacies allow it to be bought on the NHS, and it is available free of charge from sexual health clinics and GPs.
Sandra Gidley, from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said the original stance taken by Boots was a “little uncomfortable”.
She said: “They seemed to be saying women would be irresponsible and that can’t be the case because pharmacists have to ask a set number of questions so if women are regularly trying to use the morning after pill as a method of contraception they’re simply not allowed to have it.”