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House of Commons Hansard
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17 March 2020
Volume 673
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1. What diplomatic steps he is taking with his international counterparts to tackle the spread of covid-19. [901574]

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11. What diplomatic steps he is taking with his international counterparts to tackle the spread of covid-19. [901587]

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12. What steps he is taking with his international counterparts to ban wet markets and butcheries in (a) China and (b) south-east Asia where viruses have crossed the animal-human interface; and if he will make a statement. [901588]

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15. What recent steps he has taken to update travel advice on travelling to areas and countries affected by covid-19. [901592]

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16. What steps he is taking to support UK nationals based overseas who are at risk from covid-19. [901593]

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The Prime Minister spoke to his G7 counterparts yesterday about the international effort to take a global and effective response in tackling covid-19.

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In the light of the rapidly developing coronavirus pandemic, will my right hon. Friend update the House on how the Government, and specifically the Foreign Office, are providing support to British nationals who are currently in other countries?

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We are working with £241 million of aid funding and investing £65 million in research to support vulnerable countries’ capacity to tackle this. The Foreign Office is regularly reviewing our travel advice, and consular staff are working with British nationals right across the world to give them the support and advice that they need. I will be making a further statement after oral questions.

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What discussions is my right hon. Friend having with his counterparts in countries such as the United States, Australia and Israel, which are working actively on a vaccine for covid-19, so that we can share information from our research and develop a vaccine more quickly together?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question —I know how expert she is in this field. We are, of course, emphasising the importance of vaccine research and encouraging the scientific community to co-ordinate. In particular, we want to prioritise collaboration on vaccine research, including with financing and co-ordination through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations fund.

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SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—swine flu and now coronavirus are all thought to have emanated from unsanitary wet butcheries in east Asia and China. What can my right hon. Friend do to co-ordinate an effort—perhaps after all this is over— to prevent any such disease from ever starting in such places again?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that addressing the root causes of covid-19 and similar potential pandemics will require close co-operation with the international community, including China and other south-east-Asian partners. With that in mind, we welcome the Chinese Government’s decision on 24 February to make permanent the temporary ban on the trade and consumption of live wild animals.

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Many constituents are finding that unless Government travel advice advises against travel to a specific country or area, insurance companies do not pay out. Australia currently requires a two-week self-isolation period, but we are still not advising people not to travel there. What discussions is my right hon. Friend having with the insurance industry to make sure that constituents are covered in such situations?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The situation is moving very rapidly—to give him a sense of that, I should say that the Foreign Office made more than 200 changes to our travel advice over the last weekend alone. We have also published a checklist to help British travellers to think through the challenges of international travel and the questions they should ask about it. We are in contact with the airlines for the insurance reasons that my hon. Friend explained. As I mentioned, I will make a further statement after oral questions.

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Over the coming weeks and months, as more and more airlines, travel operators and insurance firms go bust, more and more British nationals will find themselves stranded abroad without accommodation or flight options. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that the Foreign Office is gearing up for that challenge and will be there to provide whatever support is required?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right. On the one hand, we do not want to take precipitate measures, but on the other we do want to take measures to prevent more and more UK nationals—particularly vulnerable ones—from being stranded overseas. It is a difficult risk-balancing exercise, and I will say more about that in the oral statement to follow.

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Happy St Patrick’s day, Mr Speaker.

The lack of global co-ordination in tackling the covid-19 outbreak has been truly shocking, but is that any wonder, given that last week, according to the German Government, the so-called leader of the free world offered CureVac “large sums of money” to make sure that the vaccine it is developing would be available only for those from the United States? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Donald Trump’s response to this outbreak has been nothing but a disgrace?

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I certainly agree with the right hon. Lady that we need a co-ordinated international response, and we need to get better internationally at that—the Prime Minister made that point during yesterday’s G7 conversation. I do not think that just bashing the Americans or the President of the US is a substitute for the sensible, practical measures that we need to take to bring British nationals, and also our European partners, home on the repatriation flights that we have organised, to deal with research and the vaccine mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), and to increase the resilience and capacity of those vulnerable countries that are trying to deal with an even greater challenge. We are addressing all those issues. The Foreign Office is working with the Department for International Development, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Ministry of Defence, and we are talking to all our partners right around the world.

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The truth is that Donald Trump’s lack of international leadership has been quite extraordinary. He started by calling the outbreaks a hoax, comparing coronavirus to winter flu and dismissing health advice, but he now calls it the “foreign virus”, blaming Europe for its spread and today blaming China, and says that he takes no responsibility at all. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is shameful that such behaviour is what we have come to expect from the current American President, even at this time of global crisis?

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I have to say to the right hon. Lady that I think we have done quite a good job in this House of trying to adopt a bipartisan approach. Whether domestically or internationally, finger-pointing just does not help in any shape or form. We are going to work with all our partners—the US, the Europeans, those in South America and those in Asia, as I have already mentioned—to try to forge the most effective response. That is what all our constituents expect and deserve.

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Aman Nasir and Laura Bartley, two of my constituents, are among 100 Brits trapped in Lima, Peru. They say that they cannot get through to our embassy in that country, so how are the Government ensuring that all Brits trapped elsewhere can access embassies and missions that are resourced to answer their queries and to get them home as soon as possible?

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We understand the concern of any constituent who finds themselves in a vulnerable position and also, of course, that of MPs who are trying to do their best. We have beefed up the support we are providing. There is a parliamentary hotline for MPs, and I will make sure that Ministers give the hon. Gentleman all the details so that he can provide the most support and up-to-date advice to his constituents.

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I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s response today, but does he remember from the Ebola crisis only a few years ago the woeful and very slow approach of the World Health Organisation? Does he not feel that we are seeing a similar response from the WHO today? Can he assure me that he is working with international partners to ensure that there is a proper, co-ordinated response despite the WHO, and that that will be the foundation for building a new international co-operative response?

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I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We are doing our level best as the UK to forge the strongest consensus possible. We have a total aid envelope of £241 million of funding. We are providing up to £150 million of that to the International Monetary Fund, £10 million to the WHO, £5 million to the Red Cross and £5 million to UNICEF. It is important that we work as collaboratively as possible with all our international partners—the WHO, but also those working in the voluntary sector, who often have particularly good expertise and access on the ground where it is needed most.