British Health Service NHS 'up for Sale to U.S.' Says Former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn

Britain's Conservative lawmakers have defended a vote to reject legal protections for the National Health Service (NHS) in post-Brexit trade deals with the U.S. and other countries, saying that it is already a "top priority".

The British House of Lords added an amendment to the government's new Trade Bill - which will enable the U.K. to make new international trade agreements after leaving the EU - that sought to legally protect the NHS from being used in future negotiations.

The clause banned any agreement that "undermines or restricts" the U.K.'s ability to provide "a comprehensive publicly funded health service free at the point of delivery" and restricted "the sale of patient data" and the government's ability to control drug prices. The amendment was supported by opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Labour Party, but rejected by Conservative MPs by 357 votes to 266.

When he went up against Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the 2019 U.K. election, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed the NHS would be "up for sale" under the Conservatives in order to secure a trade deal with the U.S. He claims to Newsweek that the result of the vote on the Trade Bill amendment has shown that the Conservatives have "betrayed" the NHS and broken any promise it would be protected.

"During the General Election, Tory MPs denied our claims that the NHS would be up for sale in trade deals, but that is exactly what is happening now," Corbyn says. "We must continue to campaign against NHS privatization and for better funding."

Conservative Trade Minister Greg Hands argued the government is "wholly committed to ensuring that the NHS remains universal and free at the point of service" and called the allegation that the NHS could be "sold off" to foreign companies "offensive and absurd".

He said: "Our position could not be clearer: the NHS, the services it provides and the price it pays for medicines will remain off the table when we are negotiating free trade agreements. These are not just words. I am pleased to confirm that none of the agreements we have signed with 63 partner countries has threatened the delivery of a free and universal NHS. Not a single one of those agreements has affected our ability to protect the health service."

NHS emergency doctor Robert Hirst says that despite what Hands says, he fears the health service is at risk from "forces which prioritize profit over our health" so some deal could be done with the trade negotiations. "Last year the government stated the NHS would not be on the table," Hirst says. "At that point, one in eight NHS beds was already being provided by a private American company. In Greater Manchester, it was one in four NHS beds. In a post-Brexit economy, our NHS is more vulnerable than ever."

NHS mural in London, UK, during COVID
Oppositions politicians have accused the government of putting the NHS at risk by including it in trade negotiations Joseph Okpako/Getty

Shadow Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry, who spoke during the Commons debate on the Bill, tells Newsweek her biggest concern is the potential for other countries to access NHS patient data. "It's deeply disappointing and disturbing that the government has refused to exclude the NHS from the scope of future trade deals with the U.S. and other countries," she says.

"Some people think the issue here is private healthcare companies from overseas being able to compete against the NHS to deliver taxpayer-funded healthcare. But for me, the far more realistic and pernicious threat is those same companies winning a greater right to provide services to the NHS through open procurement contracts, and gaining access through that route to the vast resource of NHS patient data that they've been actively pursuing for years. It should worry everyone in Britain that the government rejected it."

Access to NHS patient records is sought by drugs companies because they contain information on some 55 million people from birth to death. Unrestricted access to the data has been given an estimated value of almost £10 billion a year ($13.7bn) by professional services company EY.

In 2019, the Guardian reported that data about millions of NHS patients had already been sold to U.S. and other international pharmaceutical companies for research. Drugs giants, including Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly were named as companies that had paid the U.K. government for data derived from GPs' surgeries, for licenses costing up to £330,000 each in return for anonymized data. Campaigners have called for greater transparency in the nature of the deals and clarity on what the data is to be used for.

Licenses to buy data are issued by the Clinical Practice Research Datalink, which is part of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The MHRA says any information sold is "anonymized in accordance with the Information Commissioner's Office anonymization code of practice".

At the moment, patients who do not want their data to be shared must opt-out at their GP practice, by contacting the NHS over the phone or by filling out an online form. During the Trade Bill debate, Hands argued that the government did not see a need for the amendment to be included "as protecting the NHS is already a top priority in negotiations".

"We have all witnessed the heroic efforts of the NHS through the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are immensely grateful for all that it has accomplished," Hands said. "The NHS is not on the table. The NHS is not and never will be for sale." The Conservative Party did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.