Boots to end needle exchange programme due to 'anti-social behaviour'
A NEEDLE exchange service in Boots' flagship store in Belfast is to end due to safety concerns for staff.
The programme has been in place for the past decade and has been used by thousands of injecting drug addicts who handed in used needles, which were safely disposed of, and received new ones.
The pharmacy giant has confirmed the service will stop on November 1 but will continue in seven other Boots stores across the north.
In a statement, Anne Higgins, stores director for Northern Ireland, said the decision was not "taken lightly" and that the shop had striven to provide a "high quality service for our patients".
"However, due to the increased incidents of anti-social behaviour by users of this service we have to put the safety of our colleagues and other patients first, and so are no longer offering a needle exchange service from this store," she said.
There has a big rise in heroin use over the past four years, particularly in Belfast.
More than 30,000 visits were made to 21 needle exchanges across the north last year, with campaigners highlighting the need for more harm reduction services as waiting lists continue to grow.
Alex Bunting of Addiction NI told the BBC the withdrawal of the Boots service will be a "loss to the city", but said he understood why the decision had been made.
He said the programme protected both drug users and the public as used needles were safely returned as opposed to be discarded in the streets.
"We've seen a 53 per cent rise in the number of visits to needle exchange for opioid needles over the past four years," he said.
"That's probably reflective of the growth in the use of intravenous drugs and in particular drugs like heroin and, again, in particular in Belfast."
Mr Bunting welcomed a new needle exchange initiative funded by the Public Health Agency.
"It's an extremely powerful harm reduction method for us in terms of needle use."