The National Health Service (NHS), traditionally Britain’s watershed initiative in healthcare, is mired in controversy on the eve of the third election in as many years. The issue is no less critical and closer to the bone than the elusive Brexit. Wednesday’s bombshell by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has caused a flutter in the roost, both at home and across the Atlantic, notably in ties between the United States of America and the United Kingdom.
At a crucial juncture in the country’s diplomatic and constitutional narrative, Mr Corbyn has unveiled documents that have raised uncertainty as to whether Boris Johnson will, after all, protect the health service in a post-Brexit trade deal with Donald Trump, who does have an axe to grind. The uncertainty has deepened with Mr Corbyn’s claim that the documents are proof that the NHS, a scheme with which NRI doctors have for long been associated, is “up for sale”.
The leak illustrates that the US is interested in the UK healthcare market and that discussions had covered patent lengths, which affect the profits of American pharmaceutical companies. The US resents the leverage available to the NHS as a large state-owned consumer of medicines. There is little doubt that Washington intends to break that monopoly as a major objective of the trade talks, and thus inflate prices. Furthermore, if the state enterprise can be dismantled, it will facilitate private insurance companies to expand in the British market. It is the healthcare lobbies in the US that will gain, and not the British citizens, the targeted segment of the NHS. It is intrinsically a problem of trust.
The Prime Minister’s promise to protect the health service in trade talks with the US doesn’t inspire optimism, given his record of inaccurate statements and broken pledges. It would be a tragedy if the NHS gets reduced to a commodity to be bought and sold. Acutely aware that the issue might rock the electoral vote of the Tories, Mr Johnson has insisted that the NHS is not vulnerable to US corporate aggressions. Wednesday’s leaked documents have knocked the bottom off the Prime Minister’s saccharine assurance.
If indeed the NHS is formally “on the table” in talks, it is because the US wants it there. As yet, Whitehall has not acquiesced to any demands. Nor for that matter have formal negotiations reached the ministerial level. While Mr Johnson claims that he will never yield, the record has undermined his pledges. In what his detractors say is one of the most conspicuous falsehoods of recent British political history, the election campaign claim, printed on the side of a bus, proclaims that £ 350 million a week could be diverted from EU budgets to the NHS. The fear that US corporate interests would be the beneficiaries in any deal that is brokered by Donald Trump is dangerously real. The NHS would be their prey, indeed the target of their expanding enterprise.