Health care an early battleground in UK election

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“Our health service is in more danger than at any other time in its glorious history because of [Boris Johnson’s] government, his attitudes and the trade deals he wants to strike,” Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told MPs | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Brexit Files Insight

Boris Johnson must choose between regulatory alignment with the EU or the US, but it’s not an easy decision.

One of the Labour Party’s early attack lines in the U.K.’s upcoming election is their claim that the Conservatives would privatize the beloved National Health Service, and in particular allow American companies greater access to the U.K.’s health market. “Our health service is in more danger than at any other time in its glorious history because of [Boris Johnson’s] government, his attitudes and the trade deals he wants to strike,” Corbyn told MPs this week.

The government vehemently rejects such claims, though given voters have historically trusted Labour more than the Tories when its comes to the NHS, there is a danger these attacks will cut through.

In a radio interview with Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump dismissed Labour’s claims that Johnson would sell off the NHS as “ridiculous.”

“It’s not for us to have anything to do with your health service,” the president said. “We’re just talking about trade.”

But the question linking trade and the NHS is one of regulatory alignment.

The U.K. government has said it would like to align standards with the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the body that evaluates medicines in the EU. Without this, the U.K. would be a less attractive market for drug companies looking to sell in Europe, as it would require drugs to be submitted both to the EU and the U.K. for authorization. Experts fear this would move the U.K. down the pecking order in terms of access to new drugs.

However, according to a Channel 4 dispatches documentary, U.S. and U.K. trade officials have also discussed drug pricing. It said the White House and the U.S. pharma industry want the U.K. to pay more for medicines that are much more expensive across the Atlantic. Currently, NICE — the U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence — can block costly American drugs under its system that assesses “value for money” before approving medicines.

If the U.K. chooses to align more closely with the U.S.’s Food and Drug Administration, it could curry favor during U.S. trade deal negotiations. Pharmaceutical companies often first introduce new drugs to the U.S. market, meaning alignment with the U.S. could also translate into quicker access to these new drugs in Britain. U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell also wrote in August that the cost of care would be reduced if medical devices didn’t need to meet regulatory requirements in the EU and also in the U.S.

However, election season, Boris Johnson’s eagerness for a trade deal with the U.S., the British public’s feelings about the NHS, and U.S. officials’ repeated statements on future U.S.-U.K. trade have given U.K. opposition parties solid attack lines against the Tories, making a difficult choice for the British government even more complicated.

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