Pharmacy’s agonising wait for the decriminalisation of dispensing errors looks like coming to an end after a new defence protecting pharmacists and members of the pharmacy team against prosecution was laid before parliament today.

The Pharmacy (Preparation and Dispensing Errors – Registered Pharmacies) Order 2018 offers a defence against dispensing errors committed by registered pharmacists and technicians “or persons supervised by them at retail pharmacy premises.”

What remains unclear is the time it will take for the Order to come into force. Article 4 of the Order contains amendments to the Medicines Act 1968 and provides new defences to section 63 and 64 of that Act. Article 4 will come into effect on a date decided by the Privy Council.

Nonetheless the pharmacy profession reacted with a sense of relief. Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) chief executive Paul Bennett said it marked “the beginning of the end for the automatic criminalisation of inadvertent dispensing errors.”

He added: “Addressing this historical imbalance between professional regulation and criminal law will help foster a learning culture, encourage the reporting of errors and ultimately support patient safety.

“The Royal Pharmaceutical Society and others have campaigned to keep this in front of policymakers over a number of years and we appreciate that this has been a long journey for the profession.

“We will continue working with the Rebalancing (Medicines Legislation and Pharmacy Regulation Programme) Board as it seeks to develop similar proposals for hospitals and other pharmacy settings. We hope that it will now take this opportunity to build on this important milestone and engage with wider stakeholders.”

Steve Brine, the minister with responsibility for pharmacy at the Department of Health, took to Twitter to tell the RPS: “I promised it at your conference and like to stay true to me word!”

General Pharmaceutical Council chief executive Duncan Rudkin said: “We very much welcome the news that the Dispensing Errors (Registered Pharmacies) Order has now been laid before parliament.

“Openness and honesty when things go wrong is a core part of the standards for pharmacy professionals. This change in legislation will remove a barrier to improved reporting and learning from errors and we are pleased to see continuing progress towards changing this legislation.

“We look forward to a governmental consultation next year on removing the threat of criminal sanctions for dispensing errors made by pharmacists working in settings other than registered pharmacies.

“We have consistently been clear that single dispensing errors do not in our view constitute a fitness to practise concern, if there is not a wider pattern of errors or significant aggravating factors.”

David Reissner, a partner at Charles Russell Speechlys, tweeted a suggestion that Elizabeth Lee and Martin White, pharmacists who were prosecuted for a dispensing error and handed suspended prison sentences, receive royal pardons.