DebateOn: Hands off our NHS!

With a new PM set to take the helm, Dr John Lister, health policy academic and secretary of Keep Our NHS Public, explains why we must unite to demand our NHS is protected.

The NHS is facing significant threats as the two candidates to be the next Prime Minister move ever further to the right to appease party members.

Jeremy Hunt, cynically distorting his real wretched record as Health Secretary, may now be claiming to have ‘saved’ the NHS – but he is also echoing Boris Johnson’s threat of what would be a disastrous no-deal Brexit and promising a massive £15 billion increase in military spending – at the expense of health and welfare budgets. Whoever wins the NHS stands to lose.

Last month Donald Trump insisted that the NHS – and of course its budget of £120 billion a year – should be ‘on the table’ in any trade negotiations. Some Tory leadership hopefuls hastened to distance themselves from any toxic association with Trump’s demands – but Johnson, the front runner and Trump’s favoured candidate, not only stayed silent, but later told a meeting that the NHS “needs reform”.

Trump appeared to retreat slightly from his original statement in an interview the next day but it would be a mistake to take either his opening gambit or his subsequent statement at face value – or to trust a government led by either man to resist future US demands.

The NHS is already open to private companies to bid for contracts and has been since New Labour’s controversial reforms which opened up a competitive market in clinical care from 2000. This was worsened by the 2012 Health & Social Care Act pushed through by David Cameron’s government with Lib Dem backing. But up till now American health corporations have shown little interest in bidding for under-funded contracts to deliver patient care. Nor are the major US insurers significantly engaged in Britain, even as gaps appear in the NHS. It’s not American-owned hospitals who offered “self-pay” operations to NHS patients denied routine treatment in Warrington, but a British NHS Foundation Trust.

Far from wanting to take over the whole of the NHS, US companies like UnitedHealth subsidiary Optum have focused on profitable opportunities, selling technology, IT expertise and back office systems. The main potential money-spinner for the US is pharmaceuticals, especially if Trump could strip away existing regulations and NICE guidelines, and force British prices up to the inflated levels they are able to charge in the US market. Successive British governments have shown they are happy to accept all of these, except perhaps the drug price hikes, which would push up public spending.

It has been British governments that have opened up the NHS to EU competition laws, leaving our health system more exposed to private intervention than any other EU country. France and Germany have protected their much bigger health care against competition laws and have little if any US penetration, and the Canadian government, the USA’s neighbours, have rejected any US involvement in their health care system, even after signing the NAFTA free trade deal.

It’s not Trump or the US who have so far privatised sections of our NHS but British governments, and predominantly British companies like Virgin, along with South African, Australian and other private firms. To ensure we keep our NHS public, we need a government committed to doing just that – not one led by either of the hopefuls lining up to replace Mrs May.

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