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Ministers are seeking to end the 'postcode prescribing' of one of the most widely rationed treatments in the health service, the Department of Health confirmed this week.

A spokesperson said they were determined to end inequality of access to assisted conception services - such as in-vitro fertilisation - 'as part of a general belief in tackling inequalities across the NHS'.

The DoH has commissioned the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to produce a report setting out new guidelines for treatment. It is expected by the end of the year. It is also conducting an internal review of health authorities to determine their funding policies to allow the DoH 'to see what action should be taken to tackle geographical variations, if there are any'.

A survey by the College of Health for the National Infertility Awareness Campaign six months ago found that South West region funded 3.7 treatment cycles per 100,000 population, while Anglia and Oxford funded 21.3. Existing guidance says 40 cycles per 100,000 population should be provided.

Catherine Kennelly, a senior researcher at the College of Health involved in the survey, said the current situation was 'heartbreaking' for infertile women.

The survey showed that HAs themselves wanted more guidance, but said funding would be key because 'one reason HAs started introducing criteria was that they wanted to limit the number of people coming forward'.

NHS Confederation chief executive Stephen Thornton described the current situation as 'entirely illogical' and 'unacceptable' to patients. But he said the government faced an unenviable choice - to work within current funding, which would mean 'strict limits' on criteria such as the age at which women could start treatment, or to accept more liberal guidelines, making IVF 'yet another priority' for funding.

His point was echoed by Dr Femi Oduneye, specialist registrar in public health medicine at Wiltshire HA, which changed its policy on IVF funding this week.

The HA formerly funded no IVF treatment. It has now agreed to provide funding for 35-year-old women.

'Our policy is informed by our current circumstances,' said Dr Oduneye. 'National guidelines will help, but only if they come with more funds.'

The DoH said any discussion of age limits or other restrictions on treatment were 'speculation' until the reviews reported.

But Salford and Trafford HA chief executive Dr Ian Greatorex said even producing the guidelines would be 'difficult'.

The HA is facing a request from Salford Royal Hospital trust to phase out a specialist assisted conception centre at Hope Hospital, but is trying to maintain current provision. Dr Greatorex said criteria for treatment could include the age of a woman's partner, or whether she had children by another partner, and setting these would be 'as difficult for the government as it is for HAs'.