Ministers have admitted the NHS is still on the table as part of secretive talks over a controversial US-EU trade deal that could see it opened up to American corporations.
Following protests in London over the weekend, UK trade minister Lord Livingston confirmed that the NHS had not been excluded from talks about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), insisting that it was because it would "not see any change to its existing obligations".
The admission was seized upon by trade unions, who called on David Cameron to veto any inclusion of the NHS in talks for the controversial deal.
Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, said: “The government is allowing faceless bureaucrats in Brussels and Washington to make the sell-off of our treasured NHS permanent. The French have already used their veto to exclude the French film industry. There is no reason why the British government can’t do the same to protect the NHS.
“The people of this country didn’t vote for selling-off our NHS and they didn’t vote to make the sell-off irreversible by giving US companies the right to sue us in secret courts. It is an outrage that this government is prepared to expose our NHS to US companies and Wall Street investors.
“Lord Livingstone tried to claim that the NHS won’t be affected, in that case why is the NHS included in the deal and why can’t the government just take the NHS out of TTIP? The government needs to stop trying to pull the wool over our eyes and veto the inclusion of the NHS in TTIP now.”
A poll recently carried out by Survation found that most of those polled (68%) opposed the inclusion of the NHS as part of the deal. Barely one in four (23%) of those planning to vote Conservative supported including the NHS, while 77% of those planning to vote Ukip opposed including it in any TTIP talks.
Prime Minister David Cameron has welcomed TTIP, which could be the biggest bilateral trade deal in history, as a "once in a lifetime" opportunity. The trade deal, which could be finalised as early as next year, would create jobs and boost the UK economy by £10 billion a year, supporters say.
Lord Livingston said: "This is a very big prize, removing most tariffs so that more companies will be able to trade with the United States. We are trying to bring standards together, not reduce them.
"Our job is to put the facts on the table, give assurances and see this as a good news story."
Syed Kamall, leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, recently poured scorn on the "myths' surrounding the TTIP negotiations.
Blogging on the Huffington Post UK, he wrote: "If the TTIP negotiations cover issues other than trade, it becomes known as a "mixed agreement" and will have to be ratified by the British Parliament.
"Democratic oversight and transparency is a core shared objective of the parties and Members of the European Parliament across the political spectrum are closely monitoring the different stages of the process in order to inform our citizens and to engage them in the process."