Support 110 years of independent journalism.

27 November 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 7:17am

Evening Call: So Is The NHS For Sale Then?

By Jonn Elledge

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I have spent much of today at the Royal London Hospital, wondering when doctors started getting so young and generally fretting. Wonderful though both building and staff undoubtedly are, it’s frankly not the place I would have chosen to spend my Wednesday – but it did at least make a fitting setting to be reading about Labour’s big news about the NHS.

Quick precis. At a press conference this morning, Jeremy Corbyn announced that he had uncovered 451 pages of unredacted information about US-UK trade talks, which he claimed shone a light on Tory policies to flog the NHS off to the highest bidder after Brexit. In a nice theatrical touch, copies of the documents were distributed to attending journalists by scrubs-wearing NHS staff.

The most important point in the document: that NHS access to generic drugs would be a “key consideration” in any trade deal. That this is only one tiny element of the leaked documents, and that there’s no evidence ministers had signed off on any of this, doesn’t matter Labour argue: in the words of shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner, “it doesn’t take six meetings and 450 pages to say the NHS is not for sale.” (More on this from Ailbhe here.)

It’s worth noting that, convenient slogans aside, it’s not literally full-scale NHS privatisation being talked about here: instead it’s about, to over-simplify a little, upping the price the NHS will need to pay for drugs. It’s also worth saying that the documents reflect what the US government wants, not what the UK government has offered.

Nonetheless, if the government is serious about getting a free trade deal with the US, then “what the US government wants” is going to be a fairly big determinant of what that deal will look like. As Stephen points out, “The biggest non-tariff barriers in US-UK trade are in the provision of British healthcare and food. If you want a meaningful level of market access into the US for British companies, you are going to have to give way on both of those to a significant degree.” Or to put it another way: no discussion of drug prices, no trade deal. It’s worth reading Stephen’s piece on the subject in full.

Two other thoughts. Firstly, shifting the debate onto “threats to the NHS” might be the sort of thing that fires up Labour’s base, in roughly the same way that “Get Brexit Done” is firing up the Tories’. And secondly, the claim from some centre-right commentators that no government would deliberately implement a policy that makes public services worse or more expensive would be a lot more convincing in a world without the current British rail network.

Good day for…

Expertise. Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato’s speech on post-Brexit trade policy was interrupted by a question from Robert Rowland of the Brexit Party: what empirical evidence did she have for her assertion that the UK was facing a cliff-edge at the end of the transition period? “As far as I am aware,” Rowland said, “she does not have any degree in economics.”

“Obviously you haven’t been paying any attention to my CV,” Scott-Cato replied, “because I was and I remain a professor of economics.” To be fair to Rowland, he seems to take it in his stride that, like BT Openreach under a Corbyn government, he has just been publicly owned. You can watch the clip here.

Bad day for…

Alan Bennett, who is now the last surviving member of the Beyond the Fringe quartet, following the death of actor, director, doctor and general polymath Jonathan Miller at the age of 85. Miller’s long career included a period as director and producer of the BBC’s Television Shakespeare project, and a stint running the Old Vic Theatre. Jonathan Derbyshire interviewed him for the NS in 2013.

Quote of the day

“We’re about to vote with you, against ourselves, for the country. The least you can do is open your eyes.”

Writer Sophie Petzel on the frustration of those Jewish voters still opting for Labour, at the continued denial from some quarters that antisemitism could possibly be a real problem on the left.

Everybody’s talking about…

Corbyn’s interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, widely agreed to have been a car crash. Today’s papers were scathing, especially about the Labour leader’s decision to decline multiple opportunities to apologise to the Jewish community. 

Anyone worried about bias can take some comfort from the fact that Boris Johnson should soon face the same treatment (although the BBC have yet to work out when), and it’s hard to imagine him doing too well. George Grylls has suggested five questions Neil may wish to ask the Tory leader.

Everybody should be talking about…

Northern Ireland. I’m going to keep hammering away at that one until people start listening.

Patrick has written a fantastic interview with Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance, and the region’s first MEP to identify as neither nationalist or unionist. Can her party sustain its recent electoral surge, and win a seat at Westminster next month? You can read the interview here.

In a separate story, Patrick also explains why the DUP are edging towards a second referendum. It’s worth a read.


Evening Call is published as a free email newsletter at 5pm every weekday. You can sign up to receive it directly here.

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action