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7 February 2018, 14:08
Downing Street has sought to dampen down a row over the possible inclusion of the NHS in a post-Brexit trade deal with the US.
It comes after Theresa May sidestepped an opportunity to give an "absolute guarantee" American companies will not be handed access to the UK's healthcare system during trade negotiations.
Her failure to confirm the NHS will not form part of upcoming discussions with Washington sparked immediate accusations she had given Donald Trump the "green light to get his hands" on the country's hospitals.
Amid the backlash, the Prime Minister's official spokesman later insisted Mrs May had made clear that "the NHS is not for sale and it never will be" in previous comments made in February last year.
"Any trade deal ensures decisions about public services continue to be made by UK governments, not by our trade partners," the spokesman added.
"The UK's public health sector is protected by specific exceptions and reservations in all EU trade arrangements and, as we leave the EU, the UK will continue to ensure that rigorous protections for the NHS are included in all trade agreements it is party to."
The row flared up after Mrs May was quizzed by Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.
Sir Vince asked: "The Prime Minister knows that one of the key objectives of American trade negotiators in any future deal after Brexit is to secure access for American companies to business in the NHS.
"Can she give an absolute guarantee that in those negotiations the NHS will be excluded from their scope, and can she confirm that in her conversations with President Trump she's made it absolutely clear to him that the NHS is not for sale?"
In reply, Mrs May said the Government is primarily "looking at what we can do to increase trade between the US and UK already, even before the possibility of any free trade agreement".
The Prime Minister also told Sir Vince "he doesn't know" what the US will request "in their requirements for that free trade agreement".
She added: "We will go into those negotiations to get the best possible deal for the UK."
Commenting on Downing Street's clarification of the Prime Minister's stance, Labour's shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: "Our NHS should never be up for sale. That's not something you just forget.
"Theresa May's comments today exposed the Tories' shaky commitment to our NHS in the quest to cosy up to Donald Trump.
"Clearly the British public can't trust our public health service with a flip-flopping Prime Minister and a party that has spent almost eight years running down our health service."
Pro-Remain supporters also criticised the Prime Minister's comments.
Labour MP Peter Kyle, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said: "Theresa May just gave Donald Trump the green light to get his hands on our National Health Service.
"Just days after the US President took to Twitter to insult the NHS, the Prime Minister was given a clear opportunity to rule out opening up our health service to private competition from US companies.
"Her clear refusal to do so underlines her weakness in trade negotiations and should concern us all."
Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas posted on Twitter: "Make no mistake, an extreme Brexit is a profound threat to our health service - and MPs who love the NHS need to oppose the Tory Brexit plans."
Tory Brexiteers have been putting pressure on Mrs May to ensure a Brexit deal with the EU allows Britain the maximum ability to sign trade deals with non-EU countries, such as the US and Australia, after the UK's exit from the bloc in 2019.
Earlier this week, the US President earned a rebuke from both Downing Street and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt after he claimed the NHS "is going broke and not working".
But the Prime Minister did not raise the row in a telephone call with Mr Trump on Tuesday night.
Following his meeting with Mrs May at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month, Mr Trump claimed upcoming discussions would see "tremendous increases in trade" between the US and UK.
(c) Sky News 2018: Row as PM refuses to rule out NHS inclusion in post-Brexit US trade deal