Debate is raging on over whether the National Health Service would really be up for grabs in a post-Brexit trade deal with the US.
It comes after Jeremy Corbyn produced a 451-page un-redacted document from the Department for International Trade (DIT) which he says is ‘proof’ the NHS is in danger.
The Labour leader claimed discussions on lengthening pharmaceutical patents had already been concluded, meaning ‘more expensive drugs’ and ‘lives put at risk’.
But International Trade Secretary Liz Truss accused Corbyn of ‘out-and-out lying’ while Boris Johnson described claims the NHS for sale was ‘nonsense’.
If Labour’s claims are true, the cost of raising the price of just one popular drug to US levels is expected to cost the health service billions.
While experts say there are concerns over US negotiators expressing an interest in the NHS, they’re quick to point out that doesn’t mean a deal has actually been done.
What do we know about the leaked documents?
The notes detail six preliminary meetings between British and American trade negotiators between July 2017 and July 2019, a few weeks before Johnson became Prime Minister.
UK Officials describe the discussions as ‘the first lap’ of talks on a wide range of policy areas they ‘might expect to feature’ in a post Brexit trade deal.
The health service is mentioned a few times along with US negotiators talking about the cost of medicine and the possibility of lengthening patents.
Once patents expire the NHS is able to buy generic rather than branded versions of the same drug.
They are typically shorter in the UK which is one of the reasons why medicine is much cheaper than in the US.
American negotiators said there is ‘a lot of conversation’ in the states about drug prices and that ‘looking at what other countries pay is causing angst’.
They have concerns the US is ‘not getting a good deal in pharmaceutical industries.’
This would limit the control the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has over which drugs can be given to patients.
But nothing in the recent set of documents, which appeared weeks ago on Reddit, reveals whether UK officials agree with their position and are willing to play ball.
American officials express concerns about ‘state-owned enterprises’ and their potential to ‘disrupt trade flows’.
They also asked British representatives in they have concerns about their ‘health insurance system’.
But the response from UK doesn’t appear to show a commitment to opening up the NHS to the mercy of American market forces.
The DIT said: ‘Wouldn’t want to go down avenue of talking about specific entities but the UK has an advanced competition law regime and strong corporate governance rules, and we believe we are compliant with international best practice.
‘Wouldn’t want to discuss particular health care entities at this time, you’ll be aware of certain statements saying we need to protect our needs; this would be something to discuss further down the line when we come to consider what entities would count as “enterprises”.’
The department later said they ‘do not currently believe the US has a major offensive interest in this space’.
They added: ‘We will need to be able to go into more detail about the functioning of the NHS and our views on whether or not it is engaged in commercial activities.’
Was Jeremy Corbyn right?
Although UK officials have not committed to the US position on the health and pharmaceutical industries, experts still have some concerns.
There is no evidence that the Government has declared it wants to keep the NHS out of any future discussions completely.
Fears remain over the UK being eventually bending to the will of its transatlantic trading partner, in order to secure a deal after Brexit.
According to one document detailing a meeting in July 2018, UK negotiators ‘reached a point (for Patents in Pharmaceuticals/Health) where beyond specific policy details in niche areas, we are awaiting the clearance to negotiate and exchange text to really take significant further steps.’
Corbyn said this meant that this is ‘trade trade-negotiator speak for it being at a very advanced stage’.
The Labour leader claimed a part of one of the reports says that ‘everything is included’ in trade talks unless something is ‘specifically excluded’.
But this appears to be in reference to a description of the the negotiating position the US typically prefers to take in trade talks.
It’s clear the NHS has been talked about, which contradicts Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who previous said the service is ‘not up for discussion’.
But a question mark still hangs over what position the UK will decide to take over opening up the healthcare industry to the US.
UK director of the European Centre For International Political Economy told Channel 4: ‘The detail of trade negotiations is somewhat different to what Government has suggested – and food standards and the NHS could definitely be included.’
Responding to the claims the International Trade secretary said: ‘As we have consistently made clear, the NHS will not be on the table in any future trade deal and the price that the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table.’