The response from May – who generally seeks to avoid criticising Trump – came after the president condemned Democrat plans for a universal healthcare system by noting in a tweet Saturday’s protest march in London demanding more NHS funding.
“The Democrats are pushing for universal healthcare while thousands of people are marching in the UK because their U system is going broke and not working,” he said.
Hunt responded via Twitter by saying that while he disagreed with the opinions of some of Saturday’s marchers, “not ONE of them wants to live in a system where 28m people have no cover”, a reference to the US situation.
He added: “NHS may have challenges but I’m proud to be from the country that invented universal coverage – where all get care no matter the size of their bank balance.”
Asked whether May backed Hunt’s opinion, her spokesman said: “The prime minister is proud of having an NHS which is free at the point of delivery.
“NHS funding is at a record high, and was prioritised in the budget with an extra £2.8bn. In the recent Commonwealth Fund international survey the NHS was rated the best in the world for a second time.”
Asked whether No 10 backed Hunt’s specific tweet, the spokesman said: “Jeremy Hunt is the health secretary and of course he speaks for the government on these matters.”
The spokesman declined to say whether the PM was annoyed at another leader expressing opinions on UK domestic policy. But asked if May had ever commented on the US healthcare system he said: “I can’t recall her having done so.”
The public disagreement runs counter to a general policy within Downing Street of seeking to maintain strong ties with Trump, which involved May visiting him soon after his inauguration last year, and inviting the president for a state visit.
That trip has been delayed, seemingly because of Trump’s worries he could face mass protests. After a planned lower-key visit to open the new US embassy in London was also called off, officials are now planning a working visit for later this year.
Jeremy Corbyn also denounced Trump’s view. The Labour leader wrote: “Wrong. People were marching because we love our NHS and hate what the Tories are doing to it. Healthcare is a human right.”
Simon Stevens, the NHS England chief executive, told the Public Accounts Committee on Monday: “Unfortunately, respectfully, we suggest that tweet got the wrong end of the stick and in fact people in this country don’t want to ditch our NHS.”
After his tweet mentioning the NHS, Trump praised the coverage of Fox News for “exposing the truth”.
The channel’s morning show had featured the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage discussing the pro-NHS marches. Asked why people were protesting, Farage claimed pressure on the NHS was caused by immigration.
“Well the big problem we’ve got is a population crisis caused by government policy on immigration,” Farage said.
“We have a population of 65 million but it’s increasing by half a million people a year. We just haven’t got enough hospitals, we haven’t got enough doctors, we haven’t got enough facilities.”
Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era legislation which expanded access to health insurance, failed in Congress last year.
Polling has recorded increased support for single-payer, government-run healthcare in the US, although it remains a contentious issue largely opposed by Republicans and supported by Democrats.
The Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders made the issue a key part of his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
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