There has been much hoo-hah over the past week regarding US President Donald Trump’s remarks that the NHS should be ‘on the table’ when it comes to trade talks between the UK and the United States.
It is a comment that he rowed back from subsequently but what did he mean when he said it to begin with? The first reaction, from both right and left, was that the NHS will not be subject to discussions. The President’s comment was interpreted as being a statement that he wanted to hoover up the NHS and privatise it, an accusation also made regularly against the Conservatives. Let’s deal with that first – there isn’t a Tory alive who would dare even contemplate selling off the NHS. It would be political suicide and the British people would never vote for any party that suggests it will do so. So the Conservatives will not sell off the NHS. We know that the Liberal-Democrats won’t and Labour certainly won’t. So it isn’t going to happen.
What was the President on about then? How about this; I have travelled to the USA numerous times and on each occasion have taken health insurance with me. I have escorted groups on tour and on two occasions, group members needed medical assistance. Both times that assistance was given quickly and efficiently. Only afterwards was there any mention of insurance and thus paying for the treatment given. The idea that one is first asked if one has the money to pay for medical help before anything is done is a myth, at least in my experience.
In an episode of the TV drama ‘Casualty’ some years ago, an American visitor need hospital help and once done, got out a chequebook and asked who to make it payable to and for how much. The reply was ‘You don’t have to pay, not in the UK’. After the affected surprise and delight, a happy (and cured) American went on his way. That of course was fiction but there has been numerous and well-publicised examples of people who are not entitled to medical help coming to the UK specifically for that help, knowing that they could get it free, no questions asked.
But what if a US citizen could come to the UK quite legally and get medical help required when needed? What if a UK citizen could do the same in the USA? And without the need for (sometimes expensive) health insurance? Without having to worry over paying for it. Would that not be a good thing? It seems to me that a comprehensive trade agreement between the UK and the US could achieve that so what’s the fuss about?
It might indeed be a good thing and a very useful part of the relationship between our two countries. But let’s be truthful, in all probability President Trump wasn’t getting at that. What he meant was favourable access to the UK market for US-based suppliers of equipment and medicines.
The NHS does not make anything. It does not manufacture its own drugs, its own scanners, not even its own vacuum cleaners, mops, buckets and beds. It buys them. The NHS is a provider of health care. It does that by buying what it needs from private manufacturers - and it always has done. Right from its inception, if a doctor needed a stethoscope, the NHS bought one from a privately owned manufacturer of stethoscopes. When you pick up a prescription of Co-dydramol for pain relief, the Co-dydramol is made by a privately-owned company. The prescription form your GP used came from a pad made by a privately-owned pad making company.
There was a lot of justifiable fuss made over the ‘NHS Worker’ that hurled abuse at a Trump supporter in the demonstration last week. It now seems that she is not actually an ‘NHS Worker’ but owns her own company that supplies its product to the NHS – in other words, the NHS buys something from her privately-owned company – privately owned by the lady concerned.
Everything the NHS uses it has to buy from somewhere.
Ideally all that material would be made here in the UK but the reality is that the UK does not and never has manufactured absolutely everything the NHS needs to buy. Hence it has always purchased material and services from outside the UK, including the USA. One of the problems with this is that the NHS is known the world over and there has been examples of the NHS paying way over the odds for something. There is an element of human nature to that since greed is one of the failings of humanity but on the other hand it is also due to poor decision making by NHS bureaucrats. Overcoming this unfortunate aspect would save the NHS huge amounts of money annually so since US-based companies already can, and do, bid for NHS supply contracts, isn’t President Trump doing his job when he wants to increase the opportunities for US Pharmaceutical and other supply companies? And wouldn’t the NHS be doing its job if it took advantage of a US company being able to supply a top-quality product for patients at the lowest cost to the British taxpayer?
That isn’t privatisation. We know that President Trump can be a little clumsy with words at times (so was President George W. Bush) but that doesn’t mean the selling off of the NHS. It doesn’t mean that the NHS will be taken over by ruthless American hedge funds, intent only on stripping out every asset they can find and leaving hundreds of thousands of Brits dying because they don’t have the money to pay for medical help.
As I said, the NHS does not make, build, create or manufacture a thing. It has to buy them. From where really doesn’t matter. Just as long as it is at a fair price and the quality of it is good.
A little less posturing please, from those – of all political parties and persuasions – over the idea of the NHS buying the things it needs from America. It already does.
© Kevan James 2019.