Monday 21 October 2019

Trump’s warning on NHS deals early blow to trade hopes

US President claims reports of protests against visit are 'fake news', turns down Corbyn meeting

Invitation: Donald and Melania Trump arrive for dinner at Winfield House in London. Photo: AFP
Invitation: Donald and Melania Trump arrive for dinner at Winfield House in London. Photo: AFP

Andrew Woodcock

Donald Trump has kicked off a furious battle over the terms of a post-Brexit trade deal, insisting that the NHS must "absolutely" be included in any negotiations.

His comments yesterday were met with a wall of defiance from British doctors, healthcare unions and politicians, including the health secretary and Tory leadership hopeful Matt Hancock, who responded bluntly: "Not on my watch."

Speaking alongside Theresa May after talks in Downing Street which focused on what he claimed would be a "phenomenal" deal, doubling or even trebling UK/US trade, Mr Trump insisted that "everything's on the table - the NHS and a lot else".

Mr Hancock's unequivocal response put immense pressure on rival contenders for the succession to do likewise, potentially placing a significant roadblock in the path of an eventual deal.

The British Medical Association called on all those in the race to commit to excluding the healthcare system from negotiations, declaring: "Profit should never take priority over the protection of the health service and the healthcare of citizens."

Health union Unison said the health service must not be used as a "bargaining chip", while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn proclaimed: "Our NHS is not for sale."

Access to lucrative UK health markets and breaking the NHS's tight control on drug prices are key priorities for the US in any trade deal, alongside the easing of animal welfare and public health protections which block the import of chlorine-washed chicken and GM crops.

A summary of the US bargaining position released in February stated explicitly that Washington was seeking "full market access" for its drugs companies and "non-discriminatory treatment with respect to the purchase and sale of goods and services" by state bodies in the UK.

At a Foreign Office press conference on the second day of his state visit to the UK, Mr Trump initially appeared puzzled when asked whether he wanted the NHS included in any deal, before replying: "When you're dealing in trade everything is on the table. So NHS or anything else, a lot more than that, but everything will be on the table, absolutely."

Ms May tried to play down the significance of his comments, saying that in any trade deal "both sides negotiate and come to an agreement about what should or should not be in that trade deal for the future".

Aides later said that the question of the NHS had not arisen in two hours of talks in No 10, where the two leaders spoke more broadly about their shared desire for an ambitious deal, as well as discussing differences over Iran, climate change and China.

However, the backlash appeared to force Trump into a U-turn on the subject later in the day. He rowed back during a TV interview, saying: "I don't see it being on the table", as the NHS was "something that I would not consider part of trade".

The talks took place as thousands joined noisy protests in nearby Trafalgar Square before moving to Parliament Square where the famous orange "Trump baby" blimp was flown once more.

Mr Trump claimed not to have seen any more than a "small" protest, dismissing reports of large demonstrations as "fake news" and insisting that there were "thousands of people on the streets cheering". The president revealed he had turned down a request from the Labour leader to meet, describing Jeremy Corbyn as "a somewhat negative force".

"I really don't like critics as much as I like and respect people who get things done - so I decided not to meet," he said.

Instead, he held talks with Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage during "executive time" at the US ambassador's residence Winfield House. He was also due to see Tory leadership candidates Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove - though he claimed not to know who the environment secretary was - and had phone calls with Boris Johnson, who turned down a meeting in order to address a hustings of Tory MPs.

The president had kinder words for Ms May, telling her she was a "tremendous professional" who had not received the credit she deserved for her work on Brexit.

Irish Independent

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