Why I do not trust the government with any part of the NHS

The Conservatives' refusal to back down on TTIP poses a huge risk to public health.

I want to declare an interest. I love the NHS.

As a resident of the borough of Lewisham, I have marched and campaigned to save my local hospital. When my young son recently had an accident I took him to the A&E department in Lewisham that this government tried to close down.

I do not trust the Conservative-led government with any part of the NHS. I do not believe the NHS is safe in their hands. I oppose what governments of all parties have done with PFI and privatisation in the health service.

Since declaring their devotion to the NHS, this government have closed or downgraded 66 A&E and Maternity units. I’m not sure if there’s much more to declare.

But you can trust them if you want to.

During Thursday’s backbench debate in the House of Commons, business minister Matt Hancock went to great lengths to assure people that the NHS is safe from TTIP, and that there cannot be any fears about the future of our health service in the face of the EU/US trade deal.

Hancock said:

“Continuing to campaign [on the NHS in TTIP] is continuing actively to mislead, because public services and publicly funded health services are not included in this negotiation.”

Proponents of TTIP are careful to state that publicly provided services are immune to the provisions of TTIP. However, the NHS is no longer a purely publicly provided service. Corporate ventures into health provision in the UK are numerous and have at times been far from successful.

Witness the debacle of Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire where the Circle Partnership has thrown in the towel before the end of its contract. Many services provided within public hospitals are privately run, outsourcing is common currency in the NHS and there is no reassurance on protecting these services from the ravages of more competition.

Matt Hancock and others in Thursday’s debate were keen to reassure that the NHS would remain ‘free at the point of delivery’. This is a phrase frequently bandied about in TTIP debates, and it means that we will continue to pay for prescriptions and dentistry, but not for GP appointments or A&E admission.

There has been no assurance on the role of private interests and market mechanisms which are causing so much damage in the NHS currently.

Previous experience of ISDS in the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) provides ample evidence of what damage TTIP could do to healthcare here. In November 2012, the US pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly & Co launched a claim through ISDS against the Canadian Government for $100 million after the Canadian government invalidated the company’s patents on Strattera, a drug used to treat ADHD.

Later the claim was extended to include other drugs similarly invalidated and the claim now totals $481 million.

Essentially, this takes the decision to approve drugs for use in national health provision out of the hands of elected governments and delivers that decision to corporate lawyers, arguing in secretive courts.

TTIP provisions on intellectual property are expected to strengthen patent holders’ hands, making cheaper generic drugs less available and driving up prices for the buyers of drugs for prescription. Bad news for the taxpayer and bad news for a health service facing budgetary constraints.

More broadly, measures to improve the nation’s health through awareness campaigns over smoking or other activities detrimental to one’s health could be challenged as Philip Morris is famously doing in Australia and Uruguay. A new and enhanced ‘drink responsibly’ campaign could also be challenged in this way.

It doesn’t stop there. Any future plans to provide consumers with more information about potentially damaging food could also face the wrath of TTIP. At the moment Geraint Davies MP, who did sterling work in securing the TTIP debate in Parliament on Thursday, is also pushing for a law to make it compulsory to label food clearly with its sugar content in the Sugar in Food and Drinks (Targets, Labelling and Advertising) Bill.

This could easily be challenged through ISDS by, say, a large fizzy drinks company or a food manufacturer which favour a high sugar content in its recipes.

So once you step back from the precise and limiting terms used by TTIP supporters in debates, you get more of a picture of the threat TTIP does pose to health in this country.

One thing the government could do to deflate some of the debate would be to specifically list the NHS amongst the excluded services in the TTIP agreement. They steadfastly refuse to do this.

They also need to jettison the investor protection clause which allows corporations to sue governments – but they’re fully signed up to this clause, unlike the German and French governments.

That’s why we’ll keep campaigning until TTIP is junked – on every aspect of its vast scope and projected impacts.

Guy Taylor is the trade campaigner at Global Justice Now. Follow him on Twitter

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