Corbyn accuses Tories of planning deal to hike drug prices with Trump as election looms

Corbyn at Labour conference

Drug prices have become an issue in the UK’s general election, after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the Conservatives of planning a shady deal with Donald Trump that would see the NHS pay US prices for medicines at a cost of £500 million a week.

Corbyn’s claim in a heavily trailed pre-election speech was immediately dismissed as “fantasy” by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.

As tension mounts ahead of next month's poll Corbyn has claimed that Boris Johnson’s proposed post-Brexit free trade deal with the US could mean that the NHS would have to pay these higher US prices to appease Trump.

In the speech on Tuesday morning, Corbyn said: “Johnson stood in front of a bus and promised £350m a week for the NHS. Now we find out that £500m a week could be taken out of the NHS and handed to big drugs companies under his plans for a sell-out trade deal with Donald Trump.

“We now know that US and UK officials have been discussing drug pricing in secret and the US government is demanding ‘full market access for US products.’ Senior NHS managers have said that would mean ‘higher prices for medicines’ which will ‘pass on costs to both patients and the NHS’.”

The £500 million figure is based on a report written by three academics, which estimates that the NHS bill for medicines would jump from around £18 billion a year to around £45 billion a year.

The research from Dr Andrew Hill of Liverpool University, also cited in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme, is based on the assumption that branded drugs in the US cost roughly 2.5 times more than they do in the UK.

Trump has in the past gone on record to criticise countries outside the US that are chasing down the price of drugs, arguing that they are failing to pay their share of development costs.

His plan to tackle high drug prices in the US last year, contained an attack on countries demanding discounts on branded drug prices, describing them as “global freeloaders”.

NHS bosses are also concerned about the content of any deal with Trump and its impact on the health service.

In the UK, branded drug prices are capped under a voluntary agreement with industry that runs until 2023, but the report by NHS Confederations said that this arrangement would be unlikely to survive any free trade deal with the US.

“One can assume that such a scheme would not meet the USA’s objectives, which if achieved would result in higher prices for medicines and pass on costs to both patients and the NHS,” the NHS Confederation said in a report published late last month.

In an interview responding to Corbyn’s allegations, Gove was robust in his defence of any potential trade deal with the US.

“It doesn't matter who's in the White House or what they ask for, there is no way in any deal that we will see drug prices rise or put the NHS anywhere near the table,” he told ITV news.

The row comes just a day after NHS Providers, representing health service organisations across the country, asked for politicians to refrain from using the NHS as a “political weapon” in the run-up to the election.

Somewhat predictably, the call has fallen on deaf ears.