On the deadliest day of the pandemic yet, the government voted to reject an amendment that would have protected the NHS from inclusion in international trade deals. At a time when health professionals are getting on with the business of treating patients, MPs are stripping away the possibility of protecting our NHS as a public service, free at the point of access and accessible to all.
As a doctor working on the front line in this pandemic, I am deeply concerned about the possible implications of further NHS privatisation. The Covid-19 pandemic has only emphasised the importance of joined-up working; the need for collaboration, between intensivists, respiratory physicians, infection consultants, nurses, physiotherapists, healthcare managers and social care. It has highlighted that we cannot control infectious diseases or protect health without healthcare being available to all, regardless of their financial status.
NHS health professionals may have saved Boris Johnson’s life in 2020, but the prime minister has started 2021 by voting to allow the NHS to be open to privatisation on the international market. Yesterday, Tory MPs voted against amendments to protect our NHS in international trade deals. They voted down both a democracy amendment (aka the “scrutiny amendment”) which gives MPs the chance to view and vote on trade deals before they are agreed, and an “NHS amendment” that would see health services protected in trade deals.
The UK House of Lords voted for the democracy and NHS amendments, and the Conservatives have opposed the Lords’ decision. If the NHS is safe, why did the House of Lords vote for an amendment to the Trade Bill that ensures NHS protection? And how can the government justify reversing that decision and voting against democracy and NHS protection?
The division is clear – Tory MPs voted against the democracy amendment, while Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green MPs, as well as the Lords, voted in favour of it. The Tories continue to claim that our NHS will not be on the table in trade negotiations, yet their actions show the opposite.
Democracy, the possibility for MPs (our elected representatives) to review, scrutinise and vote on trade deals before they are signed with other countries, is critical to protecting UK food, environmental and labour standards and UK public health. Democracy and the scrutiny of trade deals is also critical; both to avoid further privatisation of our NHS, which would be difficult to reverse, and to avoid a market in NHS data without assurance of data security
The vote took place on a day when 1,610 patients died from Covid-19 – the highest yet recorded. The government has displayed incompetence and a preference for private provision over public service protection throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, with tragic results.
After the NHS being decimated for around a decade, it’s no surprise that Covid-19 has stretched UK health services and health professionals beyond our limits. Training and recruitment of health professionals has been derailed by the pandemic. Now, at a time when we need to get our democracy, social services, education and health back on track, MPs have voted themselves out of the power to scrutinise trade deals before they are agreed.
Tories technically still have time to change this decision. The Trade Bill will go back to Lords briefly on 2 February so there is still time for some compromises – at least in theory. The outcome – this decision by Tory MPs – will affect future governments and all other MPs including those who voted in favour of the democracy amendment.
Last night in parliament the government showed its true colours. Despite its protestations to the contrary, it is clear that its fondness for advancing non-qualified cronies instead of the state and experts in healthcare is only set to increase – and look where that has got us.
Dr Sarah Walpole is a junior doctor and a member of Keep Our NHS Public