Republican senators eye up NHS as US-UK trade deal talks loom

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has flown to the United States with the aim of working towards a future trade deal between the two countries. However, May has stopped short of ruling out the National Health Service (NHS)'s inclusion in such a deal, to the excitement of Republican senators.

The NHS to remain "free at the point of use"

At the Republican Party's Philadelphia retreat, May argued in favour of Britain and the US forging a post-Brexit trade partnership. May stated, as quoted by the Independent: "We're at the start of the process of a trade deal. We're both very clear that we want a trade deal. It will be in the interests of the UK from my point of view".

However, while Republican politicians reportedly applauded May's pitch, she has acknowledged that Trump will "obviously ... have the interests of the US. I believe we can come to an agreement that is in the interests of both." So, could the NHS be included in such a deal?

When asked this by reporters, May replied: "As regards the NHS, we're very clear as a Government that we're committed to an NHS that is free at the point of use." However, she failed to completely rule out the prospect of the NHS being on the table. It has been speculated that US firms could become more involved in providing healthcare in the UK, provided that users are not hit with upfront fees.

A chance to continue a "longstanding partnership"

Speaking to BuzzFeed News, Republican politicians hinted that better access to the British healthcare market could be among their demands in negotiations for a trade deal.

Todd Young, an Indiana senator, said that he is "always looking for opportunities to open up foreign markets" to Indiana-produced healthcare, calling his state's life sciences sector "quite robust and a driver of job creation". Idaho senator Jim Risch said that he would "absolutely" welcome a deal giving US healthcare firms easier access to the UK healthcare system.

Risch said that "Great Britain is one of our best... friends, we want to do business with them." Young similarly enthused: "We have a longstanding partnership as was [described] by Prime Minister May and we have a real opportunity to catalyse our respective economies."

A road for the UK Government to negotiate carefully

It's still early days; while Trump will oversee negotiations, Congress would need to give the nod before a trade deal actually goes ahead. However, Congressman Joe Lewis of Minnesota has expressed enthusiasm about a deal, which he said "could be a real example globally for how countries are going to interact" and would enable US firms to more easily invest in Britain.

Still, caution has also been urged. The Labour shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth insisted: "The British people did not vote for Theresa May to use our NHS as a bargaining chip with Donald Trump," and demanded that the Prime Minister makes clear that "a rushed trade deal with President Trump will not be a Trojan horse for NHS privatisation."

In words that should reassure many sharing's Ashworth stance, a Number 10 spokesperson has said: "The NHS will never be part of a trade deal and will always remain free at the point of delivery."