Not for Sale? Row over Labour’s ‘NHS for sale’ claim continues

Election 2019

Yesterday morning, Jeremy Corbyn attempted to swing discourse back toward firmer ground following his calamitous interview with Andrew Neill on the BBC on Tuesday night. At a hastily called press conference, the Labour leader claimed he had ‘proof’ the NHS was at risk under a post-Brexit trade deal with the US.

Mr Corbyn revealed that he had obtained a 451-page dossier showing initial talks had taken place which proved the NHS was ‘up for sale’. The Conservatives have been quick to dismiss the claims as nonsense, once again reiterating that the NHS would not be part of future trade talks. This back-and-forth ensures the question of NHS privatisation remains in a seemingly never-ending game of political ping pong.

Reality Check
Throughout this General Election, both main parties have taken a position of being fairly malleable with the truth. Draw a line between the party propaganda machines and you get something close to the truth. The document, leaked from the Department for International Trade, contains a record of discussions that have taken place between UK and US officials over a possible future trade deal.

While much of the document isn’t relevant to the selling of the NHS, it does reveal details of discussions over drug prices and patents. Representatives are recorded comparing the two systems in place for extending patents when they are delayed from entering the market. The US negotiators also suggest some other technical changes to the UK’s patent regime, which could affect the relationship with European patent regimes.

It is clear from the initial discussions that the US negotiators had more clarity of purpose on the nature of the trade deal and what they would like included. This is likely a result of their experience in these type of negotiations. The US authorities have vast experience in negotiating trade deals and currently have 20 Free Trade Agreements currently in place. For example, they recently negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership for ratification in 2016 before President Trump chose to withdraw the US signature.

One of the main reasons for cheaper drug prices in the UK is the negotiating power of the NHS, as the near monopoly purchaser in the UK, whether the drugs are patented or generic. If the patent of a drug can be extended, then the prices will remain at a higher price for longer. It will not, as Mr Corbyn suggests, automatically mean more expensive drugs in the UK. With that said, if the NHS is set to pay higher rates for longer, then there could be an increase in expenditure. It is also worth noting that the UK already has a rigorous mechanism for controlling the amount the NHS spends on drugs, a process that involves re-negotiations every five years. This would have to be completely overhauled to have the impact the Labour party are suggesting.

In short, the documents do not expose a conspiratorial plot to sell off the NHS piece by piece as some commentators on the left might suggest. With that said, it does reveal US officials have ‘pushed hard’ on grace periods, patent term extension and adjustment – all mechanisms to maximise profits for drug companies.

The nature of the NHS means removing barriers in a trade deal would be beneficial for drug companies. When this happens, it is likely Labour will cry foul play. In response, the Tories will dismiss claims that this opens the door to total privatisation of our health system. As stated before, the truth will find itself walking down a line somewhere in between.