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Editorial The NHS needs protecting – but not just from Trump

PRESSURE on all Tory contenders for the party’s leadership to confirm that the NHS will be safe in the event of any trade deal with Donald Trump’s US administration is essential.

Trade union Unite’s demand that they rule out offering our health service as a “sacrificial lamb” to appease Washington dovetails with shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey’s exposure of the inconsistencies in government statements about whether the NHS is “on the table” in such trade talks or not.

Following this week’s magnificent mobilisation against the US president, keeping the spotlight on the risks to the NHS forces the Tories onto the defensive and highlights the gulf between a Labour Party proud to promote public ownership and control of essential services across the board and a Conservative Party prepared, as one of its own former prime ministers Harold Macmillan had it, to “sell off the family silver” to corporate interests.

This is smart politics. But if our goal is a National Health Service where care, universally free at the point of use, is publicly provided to address human need and not to boost corporate profits, we need to address the reality that many privateers are already raking in the “money to be made from the sick, frail and vulnerable,” to use Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarett-Thorpe’s words.

NHS Support Federation director Paul Evans noted last year that the number of NHS contracts awarded to the private sector had increased sevenfold since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s Health and Social Care Act came into force in 2013.

That was no doubt the point of the Act, elements of which were actually drafted by management consultancy firm McKinsey, whose clients included private healthcare companies likely to benefit.

Among the biggest beneficiaries has been Virgin Care, which has snapped up over £2 billion in NHS contracts and which notoriously forced the health service to pay it £2 million in an out-of-court settlement after threatening legal action when its bid to provide medical services to children in Surrey was rejected.

Labour is well aware of this. Its leader Jeremy Corbyn was emphasising the need to “renationalise” the NHS three years ago.

It should also be aware that there is no law barring foreign firms, whether from the US or not, from bidding for NHS contracts.

Optum, a subsidiary of US health privateer UnitedHealth Group, is already providing services to the NHS.

NHS chief executive Simon Stevens has previously been a senior executive at UnitedHealth.

He was also a founder member of the Alliance for Healthcare Competitiveness, a group of US healthcare firms which explicitly lobbied for greater US access to European healthcare sectors during negotiations between the US and EU around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

This is why a tendency in some parts of the movement to present Trump as the main threat to the NHS risks being misleading.

Before Britain ever voted to leave the EU, and when Barack Obama was still sitting in the Oval Office, Unite commissioned legal advice warning that TTIP, which the EU doggedly pursued despite continent-wide popular opposition, could prevent outsourced parts of the NHS from being brought back in-house. 

Unite’s assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail’s insistence then that the British government had “no right to allow EU bureaucrats to negotiate away our ability to control the future of our NHS” is as important as the union’s current warning about the need to keep the service out of Trump’s hands.

Protection from rapacious US corporate players will not come from sheltering behind the rapacious corporate players that run the EU, and which are equally fixated on opening up public services to exploitation for profit.

The restoration and defence of public services depends on electing a Labour government prepared for a confrontation with capitalist interests, whatever their flag of convenience.

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