Ignore Labour’s scaremongering – post-Brexit trade deals will bring huge benefits to the NHS and its patients

Ignore Labour’s scaremongering – post-Brexit trade deals will bring huge benefits to the NHS and its patients

One of the most frequent attacks made by Europhiles during the General Election campaign so far has been that Boris Johnson will – post-Brexit – supposedly do a ‘dodgy deal’ with US President Donald Trump, sending £500 million a week of NHS money to American pharmaceutical companies. This charge was repeated by Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in his recent speech to the CBI, in the ITV leaders’ debate on Tuesday and again at his manifesto launch on Thursday. The response to this charge so far from Boris Johnson and other Conservatives has been to reiterate this is an outright lie, and the NHS would “not be on the table” in trade negotiations with the US. Indeed, the attack displays a clear ignorance of the nature of trade and how our NHS currently functions.

We all remember the furore and the clamour over the wording used on the Vote Leave bus during the EU Referendum campaign: “We send £350 million a week to the EU. Let’s fund the NHS instead”. To some this was questionable. However, the gross figure we sent to the EU each week was actually £363 million during the relevant period – meaning Vote Leave actually undersold the amount of money available.

This latest £500 million figure however, is not merely questionable, but fundamentally dishonest. It is a back-of-a-napkin calculation reached by multiplying the amount the NHS spends on drugs per week by two and a half. Why by two and a half? Because, the amount spent per person on drugs in the US is two and half times the amount spent in the UK. The exact figure is £940 per person in the US and £360 in the UK. This huge difference is largely the result of a lack of price controls, coupled with very strong patent protections in the US. These factors are not present in the UK – and there is no possibility they ever could be.

Full Fact have found that to describe the £500 million a week figure as certain is “misleading and unjustified” and in respect of other countries which have struck trade deals with the US involving the sale of medicines, they cite the Nuffield Trust thus:

“If you look at other countries that have concluded a trade deal with the USA containing provisions on medicines, they have not experienced increases in pharmaceutical spending to the same level per person. In fact the gap with Australia has not closed at all.”* 

The problem with Labour’s line of argument is not only with the validity of the £500 million figure, but with the ignorance it displays of how trade works and how free trade could benefit the NHS.

It is crucial to spell out very clearly how a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal – which would allow American companies to sell drugs and equipment to the NHS – would not in any way represent privatisation. The NHS does not produce its own drugs or equipment and to do so would be a serious waste of money – so clearly there is a need to purchase the best quality goods at the best possible prices.

After Brexit the NHS will be open to global markets, with a higher rate of tariff-free access available to companies around the world. This will strengthen our NHS and crucially result in better treatment and results for patients. It will be good for NHS patients to have more access to life-changing drugs – for example, the NHS has just agreed a deal with a US drug company over supplying a ‘miracle drug’ to treat Cystic Fibrosis. This deal took three years to be agreed, which would be much faster if a US trade deal were in place. The suggestions by Remainers about blocking any US trade deal which might allow drug deals to be concluded more easily is an insult to those suffering needlessly – all because many Europhiles have no appreciation of the benefits of free trade and have an ideological obsession with the EU.

The NHS cannot credibly be said to be privatised by these interactions with businesses. The public sector buying from the private sector is not a conspiracy or a ‘dodgy deal’, but economic common sense. Indeed, access to the NHS – which European companies currently have through EU Single Market membership – is clearly not a ‘dodgy deal’ or it would be regarded as privatisation. This is something Remainers who have criticised a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal clearly do not believe or understand. Once again, we are seeing a selective viewpoint from Remainers, blind to the reality of the EU.

Brexiteers readily highlight the advantages that leaving the European Union will bring to our businesses, such as allowing them to expand their customer bases beyond the Europe. However, those who favour Brexit do not often make the converse case of how opening up our economy to global markets will benefit us all, specifically our NHS.

The availability of new medical science and medicines to NHS patients has long been described as tediously slow by the millions of patients who are waiting for access to life-changing drugs. A post-Brexit trade deal with the key producers of new pharmaceuticals – such as those in the US – would be an opportunity to change this.

If we fail to Get Britain Out of the EU and achieve fair post-Brexit trade deals with other countries around the world, it is hard to see how access to new medicines can be improved. So, when faced with claims post-Brexit trade deals will be at a high cost to the NHS, it is imperative pro-Brexit voices loudly and clearly argue for the ‘transformational’ benefits free trade can bring to our NHS.

* The above article has been corrected to clarify that it was Full Fact – not the Nuffield Trust – which stated that to describe as certain that the UK could pay £500 million more per week for drugs following a post-Brexit US trade deal was “misleading and unjustified”. We apologise for the error and confusion.