Britain’s health service is for sale, leaked trade docs suggest

Britain’s healthcare system, free at the point of access, is on the table in post-Brexit trade talks, documents suggest.

Corbyn - NHS for sale - reuters
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn brandishes the 451-page document detailing secret UK-US post-Brexit trade talks [Toby Melville/Reuters]

The United Kingdom‘s National Health Service is up for grabs in a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States, the opposition Labour Party revealed on Wednesday, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson‘s unequivocal denials.

Johnson has repeatedly stated in clear and absolute terms that the NHS – which offers British citizens free healthcare at the point of access, regardless of illness – was not up for sale, but a 451-page internal government document, revealed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, details a series of secret US-UK trade negotiations covering a whole range of British public services – from food regulation to healthcare – to which Washington wants “full market access”.

“Perhaps [Johnson] would like to explain why these documents confirm the US is demanding the NHS is on the table in the trade talks,” Corbyn told a news conference in London.

“These uncensored documents leave Boris Johnson’s denials in absolute tatters.”

One detail suggests the UK would be open to longer patents on US-produced medicines, which Corbyn says would push up the price paid by the NHS for pharmaceuticals – perhaps by as much as 500,000 pounds ($645,000) a week.

Corbyn had challenged Johnson over the privatisation and sell-off during their first televised leaders’ debate, waving a sheaf of heavily redacted papers covered in blacked-out text. On Wednesday, he said he had got hold of the unredacted version, which detailed six rounds of talks between US and UK trade representatives.

Details of one meeting are understood to include an offer from Washington to share the US government’s “lines”, seemingly to help the UK manipulate the media narrative around topics such as food standards, notably chlorine-washed chicken.

Corbyn - NHS for sale  - reuters
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn had previously obtained a heavily-redacted version of the secret report [Toby Melville/Reuters]

“On behalf of the Conservative government, officials reassured their counterparts that ‘the US should expect the UK to be a liberalising influence’ and that together they could ‘fly the good flag for services liberalisation’,” said Corbyn.

“That’s a green light for breaking open Britain’s public services so corporations can profit from [them].

“So now we know, direct from the secret reports that they never wanted you to see.”

Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow trade minister, added: “Boris Johnson needs to come clean. This is more evidence the NHS is on the table.”

‘Increasingly desperate lies’

In response, the Conservative Party press office – the same account that rebranded itself as a “fact-checking” service during the TV debate – tweeted: “Increasingly desperate lies from Labour in transparent attempt to distract from Corbyn’s train wreck interview” in reference to the Labour leader’s televised forensic interrogation by the BBC’s Andrew Neil on Tuesday night.

Johnson has yet to take his turn in Neil’s hot seat, but said on Wednesday: “The NHS is in no way on the table, in no aspect whatever. This is continually brought up by the Labour party as a diversionary tactic from the difficulties they are encountering, particularly the problem about leadership on anti-Semitism, and then the great vacuity about their policy on Brexit.”

And Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, added: “Jeremy Corbyn is getting desperate and is out-and-out lying to the public about what these documents contain.

“He has always believed in conspiracy theories – which is why he has failed to crack down on the scourge of anti-Semitism in his party. This is the man that has caused huge offence by blaming an imaginary ‘Zionist lobby’ for society’s ills and now he has decided to smear UK officials too.”

Brexit deal would make US trade agreement ‘a non-starter’

While the documents may not contain a “smoking gun” that any deals have been agreed, and all the papers are dated from July 2017-July 2019, before Johnson came to power, they do clearly indicate a range of public services have been discussed by trade representatives.

The depth to which US access to UK public services will reach depends on what Brexit deal, if any, is agreed before the UK departs the European Union – and Washington’s clearly preferred option is that Britain should crash out of the world’s largest trading bloc without a divorce deal covering such things as food or finance regulation.

“USTR [US Trade Representatives] were also clear that the UK-EU situation would be determinative,” writes civil servant Oliver Griffiths on July 12, 2019. “There would be all to play for in a No Deal situation but UK commitment to the Customs Union and Single Market would make a UK-US FTA [Free Trade Agreement] a non-starter.”

These are the full unredacted documents we have been handed by the Labour Party. Read them for yourself and join the conversation: @AJEnglish

First working group: 24-25 July 2017

Second working group: 13-14 November 2017

Third working group: 21-22 March 2018

Fourth working group: 10-11 July 2018

Fifth working group: 2-7 November 2018

Sixth meeting high level readout: 12 July 2019

Source: Al Jazeera