Tory MPs last night voted down an amendment to the government’s Trade Bill intended to protect the NHS from any form of control from outside the UK, in a major blow to Britain’s health service as it grapples with the aftermath of the pandemic.
Labour proposed an amendment to the Trade Bill which would have outlawed any deal which “undermines or restricts” a publicly-funded health service that is free at the point of delivery.
The amendment would also have legally guaranteed the UK’s ability to control medicine prices, maintained the current level of patient data protection, and assured NHS staff wages and rights in any future trade deal.
However, MPs last night voted by 340 votes to 251 against supporting the amendment. Prominent Conservative ministers who voted against the bill included Cabinet members Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel, Grant Shapps, Alok Sharma, Chris Grayling and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Conservative ministers insisted the Trade Bill amendment was not needed, maintaining that the NHS will not be up for sale as part of a future trade deal, and that standards will not be lowered in post-Brexit negotiations.
Boris Johnson in October promised that “in any future trade negotiations with our country, our national health service will never be on the table.”
However, shadow trade minister Bill Esterson told the House of Commons last night that he proposed the amendment because “the threat to our NHS is right at the top of the list.”
He said: “The Prime Minister told us he favours a social insurance system in his Daily Telegraph article, so when Ministers tell us not to worry about the NHS, it simply will not wash.
“Statements alone are worthless. It is very simple: the detailed text of all agreements must include cast-iron commitments.”
US President Donald Trump last year U-turned on suggestions that a potential sale of the NHS might be part of a UK-US trade deal, saying: “I don’t see it being on the table,” having previously assured that it was up for grabs.
But Kate Osbourne, Labour MP for Jarrow told MPs yesterday: “For the President of the United States the interests of corporate America come first.
“He will demand that the NHS pays higher prices for US drugs in a trade deal with the UK. We know that our NHS has already been turned into a market, making services vulnerable to being included in the deal unless they are clearly and comprehensively excluded.”
The NHS remains a key battleground between the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition Keir Starmer, who has repeatedly criticised the UK’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called for the urgent nationalisation of care services in response to the pandemic, warning that years of underfunding have crippled the NHS and put vulnerable people at risk.
In a speech tomorrow, the Labour MP is expected to say: “We need the urgent nationalisation of care to establish the National Care and Support Service alongside the NHS.”
“With another spike in the virus highly possible, it’s time to act decisively and create the caring services we need.
MPs last night also defeated an amendment that sought to bar “chlorine-washed” chicken and other low-quality US foods from entering the UK’s market, despite previous backlash.
In May, dozens of Conservative MPs defied the whip in calling for tougher safeguards on food standards to be written into UK law in a bid to quash cheap, lower-grade imports. The move followed Washington’s demand for greater access to the British food market as part of any trade deal prompted fury from both agricultural businesses and MPs.