Protesters fear trade deal with US will 'carve open' health service

American companies could bid for any NHS contract under new agreement

Hundreds of people marched on the European Commission offices in London yesterday to protest against a free-trade deal being negotiated with the United States that some claim could lead to the privatisation of the NHS.

War on Want, which organised the demonstration, claimed that more than 1,000 people contributed to a "lively carnival atmosphere" at the event, held on a day of action against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). There were also protests in Birmingham, Cambridge and Edinburgh.

The deal between the EU and US is backed by the three main parties, which claim that removing tariffs will boost the European economy and create jobs, leaving the Greens the only parliamentary party against the deal. However Labour has expressed concern that the NHS could be "carved open" by US healthcare firms who some believe would have the power to bid for any NHS contract under the terms of the treaty.

Molly Scott Cato, a Green MEP for the South-west, said part of the problem was that the treaty was very technical. "The point of the day of action is to raise the profile of a negotiation that has largely taken place in secret and is sufficiently arcane that it does not catch the public imagination," she said.

Some countries have taken steps to protect their state-run health services, but Ms Scott Cato said it did not appear that the UK had done so. "I have not seen clear evidence that the Government has promised to keep any commitment to preserve the NHS from competition under the TTIP," she said.

A letter from Ignacio Garcia Bercero, director of the US and Canada division of the European Commission, to Labour MP John Healey, chairman of the all-party group on the deal, said that public health services would be "safeguarded" under the treaty. But Mr Healey said this simply confirmed "the NHS can be fully protected", rather than it had been.

"I totally understand and share fears of campaigners for the future of the NHS," he said. "But I see our task together now as campaigners is to hold the EU chief negotiator to his word and force [Prime Minister David] Cameron to back the same public service protections."

Business Secretary Vince Cable said: "There is no suggestion the TTIP negotiations could be used to... advance [NHS] privatisation."

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