Corbyn asks Trump for “urgent clarity” on NHS in UK-US trade talks

Sienna Rodgers

Jeremy Corbyn has written to President Trump demanding “urgent clarity” on whether the NHS is “genuinely off the table” in UK-US trade negotiations and reassurance that it is “not for sale in any form”.

Following his letter to Boris Johnson on Monday, in which he expressed similar concerns and made the same request for clarity, the Labour leader also asked Trump to change the US negotiating objectives.

The original objectives were revealed when Corbyn drew attention to unredacted documents detailing private meetings between the US and the UK. They “confirm the US is demanding the NHS is on the table in trade talks”, Labour says.

Reiterating his opposition to the possibility of enacting “irreversible privatisation” in the NHS, Corbyn hopes to draw attention to the issue while Trump visits the UK for a NATO summit.

Below is the full text of Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to President Trump.

Dear Mr President,

The UK-US trading relationship is a central element in the close partnership between our two countries.

I am writing to you today to seek assurances in relation to a post-Brexit UK-US trade agreement, and in particular over the prices paid to US drugs companies as a consequence of any such UK trade deal with the US.

As you will know, the potential impact of any future UK-US trade agreement on our National Health Service and other vital public services is of profound concern to the British public.

A critical issue in this context is the cost of drugs to our NHS. The cost of patented drugs in the US is approximately 2.5 times higher than in the UK, and the price of the top 20 medicines is 4.8 times higher than in the UK.

Any increase in the NHS drugs bill would be an unacceptable outcome of US-UK trade negotiations. Yet you have given a number of clear and worrying indications that this is exactly what you hope to achieve.

In February this year, the Office of your US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, published its negotiating objectives for a US-UK trade deal. In the section on ‘Procedural Fairness for Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices’, they call for standards to ensure that “government regulatory reimbursement regimes” provide “full market access for US products”.

You have yourself said that foreign governments extort “unreasonably low prices” from US pharmaceutical firms.  You have also directed Mr Lighthizer to make the issue “a top priority with every trading partner”.

Your Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, has said the US needs to get foreign countries to pay more for prescription drugs through trade agreements. And the White House has called for a global crackdown on ‘foreign freeloading’ on drug prices.

At a press conference held in London last week, I disclosed the leaked read-outs from six meetings of the UK-US Trade and Investment Working Group held over the past two years.

The fourth round of UK-US meetings included a three-hour session dedicated solely to patents and pharmaceuticals, during which British government officials explained how our patent system operates in relation to pharmaceuticals and the NHS.

After this session, the British official leading the discussions concluded: “We have reached a point (for Patents in Pharmaceuticals/Health) where… we are awaiting the clearance to negotiate and exchange text to really take significant further steps.” In other words, UK officials made clear they are poised to draft a trade agreement that could lead to a large increase in the cost of pharmaceuticals to the NHS.

There is also growing concern that the NHS could be opened up to irreversible privatisation as a result of the UK-US trade talks.

The evidence from your administration’s talks with the UK government shows that privatisation of NHS services delivery risks being permanently locked in through the inclusion of health services in a UK-US trade deal.

Throughout the six rounds of secret meetings to date, US officials have repeatedly emphasised that all service sectors are on the table for negotiation.

During the third round, for example, the record shows US officials pressing for an approach that makes “total market access the baseline assumption of the trade negotiations and requires countries to identify exclusions, not the other way around”.

You said earlier this year that everything would be “on the table” in a US-UK trade deal, including the NHS. You have since said you don’t necessarily see the NHS as being on the table and “part of trade”.

To assure the British public that the NHS and other UK public services will not be opened up to “total market access” and irreversible privatisation, and that all aspects of NHS pharmaceuticals procurement will truly be taken off the table in a US-UK trade agreement, I am writing to you today to ask you to request US negotiating objectives are revised as a matter of urgency so that they:

  • Exclude any reference to pharmaceuticals;
  • Accept the role of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to set the threshold for the cost-effectiveness of drugs for the NHS;
  • Drop the demand for “total market access” to UK public services;
  • Explicitly rule out any investor-state dispute settlement mechanism by which the UK government could be sued for protecting public services;
  • Exclude any provision on regulatory exclusivities such as data exclusivity, marketing exclusivity, therapeutic exclusivity and other non-patent monopolies;
  • Exclude any provision that could remove caps on the amount the NHS spends on branded medicines each year, including anything that might enable the US to take legal action against the UK’s Voluntary Price Access Scheme;
  • Ensure NHS patient data are fully exempted from digital trade and data sharing provisions in the agreement;
  • Exclude any provision that would prevent the NHS from negotiating deals for the health service as a whole.

A revision of the US negotiating objectives along these lines would go a long way to reassuring the British public that the US government will not be seeking total market access to the UK public services; that the NHS will not be on the table in US-UK trade negotiations; that a US-UK trade deal will not open up NHS services to irreversible privatisation; and that the US government accepts that our NHS is not for sale in any form.

I am sure you understand that our coming general election on 12th December means the British public need urgent clarity that our NHS is genuinely off the table in UK-US trade talks and will not be exposed to higher costs from US drugs companies.

I look forward to receiving your response.

Yours sincerely,

Jeremy Corbyn
Leader of the Labour Party

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