News outlets have recently been awash with coverage over Donald Trump’s envoy to Britain, a Mr Woody Johnson, stating on the Andrew Marr Show that all sectors of the UK’s economy would be up for negotiation and access in a free trade deal. Mr Johnson made it clear that this would include the NHS.
As a result, there has been an overly simplistic trend in the coverage, and on social media especially, which argues that a hard-Brexit necessarily entails the privatisation of the NHS. Of course, there is most definitely a degree of truth to the argument that the UK trading on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules could incentivise governments to grant greater foreign access to the NHS in order to entice larger economies, such as the US or China, into signing a free trade agreement. The National Health Action Party has pointed this out on a number of occasions.
However, there is also a real risk that by simply equating a hard Brexit with the total privatisation of the NHS that we fail to draw attention to the fact that large parts of the NHS have been privatised, and continue to be privatised, whilst we have been, and currently remain, members of the EU. It is also clear that those responsible for the NHS’ privatisation, both past and present, are benefiting from this simplification by posing as the saviour of the very institution they’re seeking to destory. A case in point being the Daily Mail’s (admittedly hardly a bastion of objective news coverage) fawning article covering Matt Hancock’s response to the affair. The article being entitled, ‘”The NHS is Not for Sale”: Health Secretary hits back after US Ambassador healthcare should be on the table in any transatlantic post-Brexit trade talks’.
This gross simplification allows politicians such as Hunt and Hancock, both of whom want to be the next Prime Minister, a free pass to paint the privatisation of the NHS as something which happens – or could happen – purely from the intervention of the external or the foreign. It occludes, or at the very least fails to direct attention where it should be. And if you’re reading this and thinking, “okay, well give me an example of their involvement in the privatisation of the NHS”, then I would direct you to the current Health Secretary’s appearing in advertorials paid for by a private company to promote the rollout of their app across the NHS. An app which is leading to the closure of services and the financial breakdown of general practice. And as for Hunt, I would simply refer you to his support, and his very concrete attempts – all aided by the Chief Executive of NHS England who also has form in privatising the NHS – to rollout Accountable Care Organisations (ACOs), i.e. American models of healthcare, across the NHS.
To summarise, none of this is to argue that citizens should not be concerned about the impact a hard Brexit could have on the NHS. However, we do the NHS a disservice when we make out that a hard Brexit is the biggest threat facing the service when it is literally being privatised beyond recognition whilst we are members of the EU. Ultimately, the responsibility and the power to fight for a fully funded NHS lays in the hands of the people, we can’t delegate our responsibilities to fight for what represents the very best of this country, to a foreign trading bloc – a bloc it is worth noting that hardly has a squeaky clean record of its own when it comes promoting free marketisation within public services.