Homeopathy treatments could be banned from the NHS under plans being considered by the government.
George Freeman, the minister for life sciences, announced the review in a statement on Friday. “We are currently considering whether or not homeopathic products should continue to be available through NHS prescriptions,” he said. "We expect to consult on proposals in due course."
If the Department of Health does decide to ban homeopathic remedies, they would be moved to Schedule 1, a "blacklist" of more than 3,000 substances that NHS doctors are banned from prescribing and which therefore the NHS cannot pay for. The list currently includes Ribena, wine, suncream, and Nurofen.
The move comes after the antipseudoscience charity Good Thinking threatened a legal challenge against the government's refusal to blacklist the remedies. The group argued that there are many substances already on Schedule 1 that are far more effective than homeopathy.
The NHS currently spends about £4 million a year on homeopathy, according to the British Homeopathic Association, not counting the maintenance costs for homeopathic hospitals.
However, research has shown that it works no better than placebo. The NHS's website says that "There is no good quality evidence that homeopathy is an effective treatment for [any] health conditions," while the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the body that assesses treatments for medical use in Britain, does not recommend its use for any health conditions.
Homeopathy has been in use since the 18th century, and is based on the principle of "like cures like" – that is, a substance which causes certain symptoms can treat those symptoms, so a homeopathic solution of coffee might be used to treat insomnia.
However, a homeopathic solution also involves huge dilution: homeopaths believe that the more diluted a remedy is, the more effective it will be. Many homeopathic remedies are diluted to such a level that not a single molecule of the original substance remains, so the pills given to patients are chemically identical to sugar pills.
Dr Simon Singh, a physicist, author, and science writer, and founder of the Good Thinking Society, said in a statement: "Given the finite resources of the NHS, any spending on homeopathy is utterly unjustifiable, when the money spent on these disproven remedies can be far better spent on treatments that offer real benefits to patients. Homeopathic remedies have been thoroughly demonstrated to be nothing more than placebos.
"In fact, it is the official position of the British Medical Association, the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Scientific Advisor, the House of Commons' Science and Technology Select Committee, and even the stated position of the current Health Secretary."
Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, signed a Commons motion in support of homeopathy in 2007 but appears to have changed his position since, telling LBC last year that the NHS must follow the scientific evidence.
Despite the clear opposition of the medical establishment, however, homeopathy continues to have some prominent supporters in parliament. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has signed parliamentary motions backing the remedies, while his shadow chancellor John McDonnell has held events for practitioners at Westminster.
Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander told BuzzFeed News in September that she remained unconvinced that homeopathy should be available on the NHS. “I know lots of people who know about benefits of homeopathy,” she said, but added: “Whether it’s the right use of public money is another thing altogether. … I must admit I’m not totally convinced at the moment."
BuzzFeed News has approached the shadow health team for a comment on the possible blacklisting.