Concerns about how the NHS could be treated in a US-UK trade agreement signed by Donald Trump are a “conspiracy theory”, the Tories claimed in the latest televised election clash.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak, who stood in for Boris Johnson, said that new evidence of meetings between UK and US trade negotiators where the health service was up for discussion was “desperate” and “ridiculous”.
Mr Sunak was rounded on by other parties in a wide-ranging seven-way clash broadcast on the BBC on Friday night.
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Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who was representing her party at the debate, told the audience: “I’m going to be pretty blunt here, when Boris Johnson says the NHS is not on the table in a future trade deal, I simply do not trust him and I do not believe him on that point.”
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said it was “absolutely right to say that the NHS is at risk here”, while Labour frontbencher Rebecca Long-Bailey added: “Certainly, if we privatise our NHS [charging for treatment] could be the direction of travel and that’s why it’s so important to make sure our NHS isn’t on the table in any future US trade deal.”
Higher drug prices have long been a key ask of US trade negotiators, who believe American pharmaceutical companies lose out in profits because of EU rules that allow “generic” drugs that circumvent patents.
There is also a view in Washington that the NHS represents unfair state competition to US healthcare companies, who might look to expand into the UK market under any any agreement.
Donald Trump himself said that the NHS was on the table when asked about it in June this year, telling reporters: “When you’re dealing in trade, everything is on the table – NHS or anything else.” He later tried to downplay the remarks.
The debate was a clash between senior figures in the parties rather than leaders, with the Greens, Conservatives, Labour and Brexit Party choosing to send alternative spokespeople.
Tory Mr Sunak said the evidence was “a desperate, conspiracy theory”, adding: “We’re absolutely crystal clear – the NHS will not be on the table, the price the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table, we will walk away from any trade discussion where that’s put on the table. We care deeply about supporting our NHS.”
Mr Trump is due to visit London next week for a Nato summit, where he will meet other world leaders including Boris Johnson.
The latest clash comes as broadcaster Sir David Attenborough criticised Boris Johnson for not showing up to a separate debate about climate change hosted by Channel 4 on Thursday evening.
He said the refusal to attend was “shameful” adding: “I don’t know what else he had to do, but it would have to be very, very important to dodge this one.”