Donald Trump has insisted the NHS will be “on the table” in talks on a UK-US trade deal after Brexit.
The US president said his country was ready to do a “phenomenal” deal with Britain that could double or triple trade between the two countries.
But in comments which will be met with stiff resistance in the UK, he added: “I think everything with a trade deal is on the table.
“When you’re dealing with trade, everything is on the table, so NHS or anything else, a lot more than that, but everything will be on the table absolutely.”
Appearing alongside Trump in a joint press conference in the Foreign Office, Theresa May quickly replied: “But the point about making trade deals is of course both sides negotiate and come to an agreement about what should or should not be in that trade deal for the future.”
Health Secretary and Tory leadership hopeful Matt Hancock hit back almost immediately, tweeting: “Dear Mr President. The NHS isn’t on the table in trade talks - and never will be. Not on my watch.”
After the press conference had concluded, however, the president added to the confusion over his comments in an interview with Good Morning Britain, telling the ITV programme’s Piers Morgan: “I don’t see it being on the table.
“Somebody asked me a question today and I say everything is up for negotiation, because everything is. But I don’t see that as being, that something that I would not consider part of trade. That’s not trade.”
The US president spoke at the press conference as thousands of demonstrators descended on Westminster to protest against his state visit.
Addressing the mass rally against Trump, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn vowed to oppose any Brexit trade deal that leaves “our precious NHS to be taken over by American companies”.
The shape of any trade deal with the US goes to the heart of the Brexit debate in Britain.
Hard Brexiteers who favour either a no-deal exit from the EU or looser ties than currently drawn up in May’s withdrawal agreement see a bumper trade deal with the US as a key prize.
But rivals fear a no-deal or hard Brexit would leave the UK having to open up its economy and lower its standards to try and compensate for a loss of trade with the EU.
Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Ed Davey said: “This is a national embarrassment. Trump stands up next to a weakened prime minister on her way out of office and repeats the demands of his ambassador, that our precious NHS be up for negotiation in US trade deal talks.
“With friends like this, who needs enemies?
“Those who called for Brexit on the basis it would mean better trade deals for the UK should hang their heads in shame.
“I challenge all Tory leadership candidates to stand up to Trump’s demands, and firmly rule out our health service being on the table in any future trade deal talks.”
Sarah Gorton, head of health at the UNISON union, said: “The government shouldn’t stoop to allowing the NHS to be used as a bargaining chip.
“We’re close to securing legislation rolling back the hated marketisation of the health service and mustn’t squander a chance to protect it from privatisation and competition.
“Brexit campaigners said leaving the EU would allow billions to be piled into the NHS – not tear it apart.”
In a wide-ranging press conference, Trump toned down US warnings over the role of Huawei in the construction of the UK’s 5G network infrastructure.
Washington has voiced national security concerns over May’s plans to approve the Chinese firm’s involvement in the project.
But perhaps cheered that Tory leadership candidates lining up to replace May have sided with him, Trump toned down the rhetoric.
Asked if the US could impose limits on intelligence sharing if the UK used Huawei infrastructure, Trump said: “No, because we’re gonna have absolutely an agreement on Huawei and everything else. We have an incredible intelligence relationship and we will be able to work out any differences.
“We did discuss it - I see absolutely no limitations, we’ve never had limitations. This is a truly great ally and partner and we’ll have no problem with that.”
Trump also highlighted the continuing military co-operation between the UK and the US.
He said: “I want to thank the people of the United Kingdom for their service and partnership in our campaign to defeat Isis.
“The United Kingdom is also a key partner in Nato. The prime minister and I agree that our Nato allies must increase their defence spending.
“They have no choice, they must fulfil their obligations.”
The president also reaffirmed his opposition to Iran’s nuclear capability, saying: “The United States and the United Kingdom are determined to ensure that Iran never develops nuclear weapons and stops supporting and engaging in terrorism.”