The vultures vying for our NHS at a time when we need it the most

A banner in support of the NHS opposite King's College Hospital in south London as the UK continues

A banner in support of the NHS opposite King's College Hospital in south London as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA. - Credit: PA

At a time when the public is clapping for the NHS the government is entering post-Brexit talks with the US which could put in danger the future of our health service.

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and the US trade representative Robert Lighthizer (on screen

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and the US trade representative Robert Lighthizer (on screen) as they formally begin the UK-US trade talks. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

Despite both the USA and UK currently facing lockdown, talks to pull together a trade deal resumed this week. Campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic have long warned of the dangers a trade deal with Donald Trump poses. Not least of these is the threats to the NHS. 

Although Boris Johnson has been forced into repeatedly reassuring us that the NHS is 'not on the table'. In truth, warm words aren't enough. 

Vultures in the US private healthcare industry would love to get their hands on our NHS. And unless we've specifically legislated to protect it, they'll have a good shot at getting their way.

This is, firstly, because there's no established mechanism to exclude any service from the investment chapter of a trade deal. That's the chapter that could include the controversial Investor-State Dispute Settlement system (ISDS), which allows private companies to sue governments for restricting their ability to make profits. Any NHS service run by a US company or with US shareholders is therefore automatically 'on the table'.

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Additionally, the US will likely push for a system of 'negative listing' in a trade deal, where negotiators must comprehensively list every single service to be excluded from the deal. Thanks to decades of fragmentation and privatisation, the NHS a not a single 'national' service, but is made up of countless services and sectors. That means UK negotiators would have to list every aspect of our health service line by line, including services that don't even exist yet. 

Not to mention the fact that the USA has repeatedly made clear it wants to strengthen patents for US-manufactured pharmaceuticals, forcing the NHS to pay more for drugs.  

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To make matters worse, we're negotiating or planning to negotiate trade deals with dozens of other countries, which all carry similar dangers. Without proper protection, negotiators will face the exact same painstaking and near impossible battle to exclude the NHS from each of these deals too.

So, with our NHS on the table, ready to be carved up and hauled off to the highest bidder, these trade deals pose a real threat of locking in existing levels of privatisation, forcing yet more private involvement, and tying the hand of any UK government that seeks to restore our NHS to a fully public service. The current crisis has shown just how crucial that is to public health - and a trade deal could stop it from happening.

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But this isn't game over. We can protect our NHS. It just needs more than Boris Johnson's bumbling reassurances. We need strong legislation, to write into UK law that the NHS can't and won't be included in any trade deals. 

Sadly, the Trade Bill currently passing through parliament doesn't provide that protection. But MPs have the power to amend it - and they should. MPs from all parties must stand with the public and ensure that Donald Trump doesn't get his hands anywhere near our NHS. And the public must demand that they do so, and hold them to account if they refuse. 

Coronavirus has shown us just how precious, vital and vulnerable our NHS is. It would be a slap in the face to our fantastic NHS staff who have been working night and day to keep us safe if we were to let this brilliant health system be sold off under our noses. Now's the time to protect it, once and for all.

• Ellen Lees is a campaigner with We Own It, a group putting public services before profit.

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