Brexit: Hundreds of health professionals sign open letter demanding protection for NHS in trade deals

Warning that legislation will leave health service vulnerable to US corporations

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Friday 17 July 2020 14:35 BST

More than 400 NHS and public health professionals have signed an open letter demanding legal guarantees in post-Brexit trade legislation currently going through parliament to provide specific protections for the health service in any future negotiations with countries such as the US.

Signatories – who include the president of the Faculty of Public Health, Maggie Rae, and former World Health Organisation director Anthony Costello – warned that without amendments the government’s Trade Bill would put the NHS “on the table in future trade deals”.

Unless explicitly excluded, the NHS will be automatically included in trade negotiations, exposing the UK healthcare system to “unavoidable and irreversible marketisation”, they warned.

Boris Johnson has repeatedly stated that the NHS is not on the table in trade negotiations with the US, though secret documents revealed last year by Labour showed that American negotiators had made clear their ambition to secure concessions on drug patents and access to health markets.

The Trade Bill completes its passage through the House of Commons on Monday, with MPs due to vote on amendments tabled by Labour leader Keir Starmer and SNP trade spokesperson Stewart Hosie to protect the NHS in negotiations, as well as a separate bid by Tory Jonathan Djanogly to give parliament the right to scrutinise and vote on any trade deal before it is signed.

The 400 health workers, who include frontline hospital doctors, nurses and GPs as well as more than 40 professors and the president of the Medical Women’s Federation, Neena Modi, warned that a free trade deal with the US would risk reducing access to medications, compromising the safe storage of NHS data and undermining the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Unless MPs pass legal guarantees that the NHS is to be exempted, the UK could be exposed to the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system, which allows a company to sue a government for threatening their profits by imposing barriers to trade, said the letter.

“Protecting the NHS from trade deals has public support,” the signatories said, pointing to recent polls suggesting 84 per cent of voters want the NHS to remain fully public.

“In last year’s elections, all major political parties pledged to protect the NHS. To fulfil their promise, we ask politicians to support amendments to the Trade Bill to mandate adequate scrutiny of all trade deals and to provide explicit protection to the NHS in future trade deals.”

Dr Sarah Walpole, a junior doctor who wrote the letter, said: “In the UK, we take it for granted that we won’t go bankrupt paying for medical treatment. Covid-19 has shown us the importance of healthcare being accessible to all, and the value of our NHS and public health system.

“The Trade Bill in its current form leads the way towards ongoing fragmentation and marketisation of UK health services and higher drug prices, a path which the NHS may not survive. If services are contracted out to private companies through trade deals, this may be irreversible due to international law.

The letter was backed by pro-public ownership pressure group We Own It, whose director Cat Hobbs said: “Boris Johnson’s warm words aren’t enough. We can’t wish away the threat that trade deals pose to our NHS.

“Instead, what we need is concrete protection. To make matters worse, right now we not only don’t have this protection, but parliament isn’t being given the most basic powers of scrutiny on trade deals. That means neither MPs, nor the public will be able to see what is being included, and how our NHS will be affected.

“MPs debating the Trade Bill must listen to the public and stand up for our treasured NHS. At the very least, they must back Jonathan Djanogly’s amendment to allow parliament to scrutinise future trade deals. If they don’t, their constituents won’t forgive, and they won’t forget.”

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