Senior Tories have condemned plans to strip the right to free prescriptions from benefits claimants who don’t look for work, warning that the government risks descending into the politics of “hate”.
Former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine said ministers should not “use the health service as a sanction”.
Doctors’ leaders also hit out, accusing the government of holding people’s health “to ransom”.
The furious reaction erupted after the government announced a new crackdown that will see those who “coast” on benefits and refuse to take a job lose access to free prescriptions and dental treatment among other things.
The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, said the move, which is one plank of a wider “back to work” plan expected in next week’s autumn statement, is necessary to stop “anyone choosing to coast on the hard work of taxpayers”.
But it sparked a backlash from senior Conservatives, including former health ministers.
Tory grandee Lord Heseltine said he was “all for persuading people to go back to work”, but that the “last thing anyone should do is attack people on health grounds”.
In a warning to the government, he added: “I’m wary of zealots’ interests welling up into hate politics – they need to be careful.”
Former health secretary Stephen Dorrell said that all governments face the difficult question of who should receive benefits, “but making a virtue of withdrawing healthcare support from people who by implication need it is deliberately unpleasant”.
He also predicted that the plans could be subject to legal challenge. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there isn’t some clause in one of the human rights pieces [of legislation] that could be used to at least make this arguable in front of a court,” he said.
Another former Tory health minister, Steve Brine, said he was concerned because while “there are always those who abuse the system, there are many in between who could simply fall further into the margins and drive health inequalities”.
Dr Latifa Patel of the British Medical Association said the government should not hold “people’s health to ransom, especially when their poor health may be the very reason they are unable to work in the first place”.
“Removing people’s access to the medication that they need would not only be cruel, risking real harm, but also counterintuitive,” she said, as unwell people would pile further pressure and expense onto an already overstretched NHS.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said there were already sanctions for those “taking the mick”, but he added: “I don’t see how limiting people’s access to healthcare is going to be effective or ethical.”
The plans will not affect anyone with a long-term health condition or disability, or anyone who has children, sources at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said.
The measures are expected to affect tens of thousands of people out of more than a million universal credit claimants. They will kick in if someone is judged to have been “disengaged” for six months.
As well as losing the right to free prescriptions, they would also lose access to cheaper mobile phone packages, help from energy suppliers, funeral costs and travel discount schemes.
Tase Oputu, the chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in England, said the society was “deeply concerned” about the inequalities that already exist in relation to prescription charges and access to medicine.
“No one should be faced with a financial barrier to getting the medicines they need, regardless of their employment status,” she said. “Being unable to afford your medicines leads to poor health, lost productivity, and costly and avoidable hospital admissions.”
The DWP has been approached for comment.