THE sick and elderly in the region could be hit hard by plans to relax the rules on opening pharmacies.

The Government may lift restrictions on how many chemists can dispense prescriptions in a particular area following an Office of Fair Trading (OFT) report that claimed the move would save customers and the NHS money.

But pharmacists fear the proposals, which would allow any registered pharmacy with qualified staff to dispense prescriptions, could drive them out of business by paving the way for supermarket chains to cream off the business in profitable areas.

The National Pharmaceutical Association said the move could leave people in poorer communities without a local, easily-accessible pharmacy for prescriptions.

The association is lobbying politicians at all levels and urging customers to back its campaign against liberalisation through petitions at its members' shops.

Parts of the North-East, such as the former mining district of Easington, in County Durham, have some of the country's highest levels of illness and poverty, and the association fears areas such as these will suffer.

Association chief executive John D'Arcy said: "The only winners will be shareholders of large, better-resourced players, whose main concern is profit rather than patients and healthcare services.

"We are concerned they will cherry pick by establishing pharmacies in well-serviced, profitable urban areas with high customer footfall.

"The stark reality is that people in rural, isolated or deprived areas may suffer reduced access to pharmacy services as local pharmacies struggle to survive."

Pharmacists are also concerned that relaxation would hamper initiatives for them to take on a greater role in treating patients and ease the pressure on GPs.

Some supermarket chains have welcomed the OFT's recommendations, which the Government is currently consulting on.

Health Secretary and Darlington MP Alan Milburn has indicated he will reject the OFT findings if there is sufficient hostility.