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WE’VE never been so painfully aware of the importance of our National Health Service.
Those of us who have been fighting against cuts and privatisation for years can take no joy in being proved right under these circumstances.
The scary truth is that the Conservatives have left the NHS dangerously unprepared for this crisis.
It was already working at 94 per cent capacity before the pandemic, because of years of underfunding and outsourcing of staff and services.
The government is now showing truly jaw-dropping levels of incompetence in failing to order and deliver the protective equipment that front-line staff need.
Somehow, at the same time, it feels that it is appropriate to continue work on trade negotiations.
Just a few days before Parliament rose early to allow MPs to self-isolate in their constituencies, the government published the Trade Bill — which sets out how Britain can negotiate trade deals post-Brexit.
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss has tweeted repeatedly about continuing to prioritise trade, and the US trade representative said just last week that the US and Britain were both “committed to starting trade negotiations as soon as possible.”
It shouldn’t need pointing out that negotiating major international trade deals shouldn’t be the government’s priority at the time of a global pandemic.
But it does reveal once again that both the British and US governments put a higher price on delivering for business than they do on protecting human lives.
Worse still, we know that trade deals open up our NHS (and other public services) to more privatisation.
Our public services are very much “on the table” and a trade deal would be undermining them further at the time when we need them the most.
This is because trade deals “lock in” current levels of privatisation, making it possible to increase privatisation, but not reverse it — unless specific exceptions are made.
Even more worryingly, the availability of potential treatments or vaccines is under threat from a trade deal.
The US has made its intentions clear about raising drug prices through a trade deal with Britain, and President Donald Trump has even threatened to buy a Covid-19 vaccine “for the US only.”
At this extremely difficult time, our government should be focusing on dealing with the crisis — and nothing else.
That’s why civil society organisations, including We Own It, signed a joint letter organised by the Trade Justice Movement, calling on the government to pause work on a new trade deal with the US until this crisis is resolved.
The letter states:
The United States Trade Representative announced on March 23 2020 that “both the United States and the United Kingdom are committed to starting trade negotiations as soon as possible,” and the UK government has similarly signalled its desire to begin and conclude negotiations soon.
This is despite the Covid-19 pandemic which has created a public health crisis and associated government response in both the UK and the US.
In the context of the whole of the UK and part of the US being in lockdown, and Parliament rising earlier than planned this week, it would be deeply inappropriate for trade negotiations with the United States to commence at this time — or for the foreseeable future.
The UK government’s attention should be focused on dealing with the public health and economic crises which face our nation.
To complicate things further, Parliament has now risen for recess, and won’t be back as scheduled on April 21 — and it’s unlikely they’ll return at all for another couple of months if the lockdown continues.
That means there’s no scrutiny of government decisions, and no-one to raise the alarm at Boris Johnson and Donald Trump pulling together dodgy deals behind closed doors, while the whole country is understandably distracted by coronavirus.
It’s imperative that MPs — when they’re not fighting fires in their constituencies — do everything that they can to resist this attempt to negotiate a secret Trump trade deal, one that has such profound consequences for our NHS.
They must be ready to block any attempts to rush the Trade Bill through, unamended, after recess and they must be ready to fight for an amendment that excludes our precious NHS from the effect of any trade deals.
And the public must be ready to stand up and make clear that we won’t accept our NHS being carved up and sold off in a trade deal with Trump.
As the letter says:
Outside of a time of crisis, when the government has the time and resources to dedicate to negotiations, we expect full public and parliamentary engagement with appropriate scrutiny and transparency throughout the process.
We call on the government to pause all trade negotiations until the Covid-19 crisis is under control and to inform both the public and potential trade partners of this necessary action.
This pandemic is forcing governments around the world to choose between protecting human life and propping up the interests of business.
If it continues to prioritise dangerous trade deals, the British government’s choice will be clear.
Ellen Lees is campaigns officer at We Own It (weownit.org.uk).
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