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Covid-19: International Response

Volume 675: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2020

I call the Secretary of State for International Development, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who should speak for no more than 10 minutes.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the UK’s support for the global effort to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

The world is now having to address the biggest threat that it has faced in decades: an invisible killer on a global scale. Here in the UK, communities across the country are united in their determination to beat it, making their own personal sacrifices by staying at home, protecting our NHS and saving lives.

There is a daunting outlook for countries in the developing world, simultaneously facing a health crisis, a humanitarian crisis and the risk of a protracted economic crisis leading to much greater hardship for years to come. The threat of famines, exacerbated by the worst locust plague for 70 years, fragile healthcare systems that enable the spread of the disease and economic disruptions risk a much longer and harder road back to recovery than for wealthy countries.

However, through the altruism of the British people and the expertise of our scientists and engineers, the UK is proudly playing a leading role in the global response. On Monday, together with other world leaders, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister co-hosted a virtual global coronavirus response pledging conference. He called on countries around the world to step up their efforts and work together on this, the

“most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetimes”.

World leaders responded, and some £6.5 billion was pledged for the covid-19 response, including the UK’s own £388 million commitment for vaccines, tests and treatments. The UK is proud to stand with our international partners—this is a truly global effort, and the only way to fight this pandemic is together.

The UK is a development superpower, and we are also a scientific and medical world leader. This enables our response to this global pandemic to be greater than the sum of its parts. From Gloucestershire’s Dr Edward Jenner, who laid the foundations for immunology, to our researchers who developed vaccines for measles and Ebola, the UK has led the scientific response to many global health challenges in the past. I am so proud to be able to say that UK-based scientists, such as those at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, are playing key roles in the global response to this deadly new virus. Scientists in Bedfordshire who developed rapid diagnostic devices to manage the recent Ebola outbreak, funded with taxpayers’ money through UK aid, are using that expertise to develop new rapid diagnostic tests. 

Researchers at Oxford University, funded through CEPI— the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations —are now progressing to clinical trials, with funding from the UK Government’s vaccines taskforce, which is also funding a vaccine trial starting soon at Imperial College. In partnership with a British success story, AstraZeneca—one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies—our Oxford researchers are working towards their vaccine being manufactured at scale. We know that any vaccine might prove to be the solution, so through our Department for International Development aid budget, the UK is the largest single contributor of any country to CEPI’s international efforts to find a coronavirus vaccine. Through this fund, we are working to improve our understanding of the virus and to support scientists around the globe. CEPI is already backing nine potential vaccines.

The Foreign Secretary outlined at the launch of the World Health Organisation’s access to covid-19 tools accelerator that the UK is proud to work with our international partners to ensure that new vaccines are accessible to everyone, as quickly as possible. No one will be safe until we are all safe. So we will need vaccines against this deadly disease, at home and abroad. Once a vaccine is found, delivering it globally will be the next big challenge. To help with that, we have invested the equivalent of £330 million a year for the next five years in GAVI, the global vaccine alliance that delivers vaccines in 68 of the poorest countries around the world. On 4 June, the UK will be hosting the global vaccine summit to co-ordinate international investment efforts for GAVI. Together with the announcement made by the Prime Minister on Monday, that is a combined additional investment in global health security that comes to more than £2 billion, helping combat the spread of disease. In investing globally, we are helping to protect our citizens—our families—from future waves of infection, and protecting our NHS.

The global pandemic is one part of the challenge facing the world. DFID’s immediate coronavirus response to date amounts to £744 million. But this is on top of our work to pivot much of our existing work to provide health, humanitarian and economic support where it is needed most, as part of our response to these crises, with a health response that builds on the UK’s long-standing record of supporting countries to prepare for and respond to large disease outbreaks, including as the third largest donor to the World Health Organisation. We are investing on the frontier of research into new rapid diagnostics and therapeutics that can detect and treat coronavirus. Working in partnership with Unilever, we have launched an innovative hand-washing campaign that will reach 1 billion people around the world—a major contribution to global sanitation and hygiene. With the support of British and international non-governmental organisations, and advice from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, we will reach one in seven people around the world with information on the most effective ways to stop the virus spreading and save lives.

We are also working to reduce the global economic impact of the virus by preventing its spread, protecting both the UK public and the stability of our economy. Last month, the UK, together with other G20 countries, announced a commitment to suspend debt service payments to the poorest countries until the end of 2020. This will create up to $12 billion of additional fiscal space. DFID has also made up to £150 million available to the International Monetary Fund for debt relief. These measures will enable developing countries to direct greater domestic resources to their own healthcare efforts, helping to prevent the virus from spreading around the world. We are supporting developing country Governments to make proportionate, evidence-based trade-offs between containing the virus and maintaining open trade, so that essential goods and services, including critical medical and food supplies, can continue to move around the world. That supports developing countries, but it also means that British consumers will get the vital goods they need.

Covid-19 is a global pandemic. It does not respect national borders. Individual efforts will succeed only as part of a global response. The UK will continue to play a leading role in galvanising the most effective co-ordinated international action. In 2017, the scientific community in the UK proudly played a key role in the international response to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. I am proud to update the House that we are doing so again.

We are using British expertise and funding to demonstrate leadership internationally. Recognising that needs will be great, we are doing whatever it takes to ensure that vaccines, treatments and technologies are available, to save lives and to support economies in the most vulnerable countries, and to help end the pandemic. That will help reduce the risk of the world being attacked by a second wave of infection. As the Prime Minister said on Monday:

“It’s humanity against the virus—we are in this together, and together we will prevail.”

I commend this statement to the House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. I would also like to offer my thanks to all those workers, both in the UK and across the world, who are on the frontline during this pandemic. In particular, I thank the women, who make up more than 70% of the global health workforce and provide unpaid and underpaid care in communities around the world.

Wherever we look, the virus has hit the poorest and most vulnerable hardest and has exacerbated existing inequalities. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that ensuring that we have a strong, independent DFID is vital to overcoming the immediate emergency of the coronavirus while continuing to tackle global poverty, inequality and the climate crisis.

I support the Secretary of State’s commitment to the pledging event on Monday, which was hosted by the European Union and other partners. I welcome the UK’s commitment of £388 million. Can she tell the House how much of that is new, additional money? Without global collaboration, there is a risk of a scramble between countries, huge price hikes and restrictions on supply, which will all come at the expense of people’s lives. What steps is she taking to secure buy-in from those who did not attend the event and those who did not contribute, such as the United States and China?

Following the comments by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care about an upside of being first to discover a vaccine, has the International Development Secretary explained to him that creating division and competition between nations will cost lives? Will she also detail the concrete conditions that the Government are attaching to public money going to researching and manufacturing tests, vaccines and medical tools for covid-19, so that those who need access to that vital equipment and medicine are able to access it as quickly as possible wherever they are in the world?

I would also like to take this opportunity to raise the issue of shipments and distribution. Since the week of 22 March, UNICEF has reported a 70% to 80% reduction in planned vaccine shipments. With the huge increase in the cost of flights to deliver goods, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to get medical supplies to countries that are running out and to stop airline companies profiteering from the global pandemic?

I welcome the steps that the International Monetary Fund and the G20 have taken so far on debt relief. The Jubilee Debt Campaign estimates that bonds and other private external debt payments for 77 of the poorest countries will total at least $9.4 billion from May to December 2020. With the UK playing its part as a key jurisdiction for international debt contracts, can the Secretary of State explain what legislative options she is exploring to protect countries from being crippled by private debt?

Coronavirus is not just a health emergency; it is an economic and social one too. These secondary impacts of the coronavirus risk doing untold damage to people’s lives. We already see large-scale food insecurity, increases in deaths due to other health problems such as HIV and malaria, and clampdowns on human rights. The Secretary of State mentioned pivoting resources towards covid-19. Does she agree that diverting resources risks a spike in problems in other areas, as we have already seen in the United Kingdom?

Finally, as we saw during the Ebola outbreak, trusted organisations rooted in communities will be crucial to delivering accurate public health messaging and WASH—water, sanitation and hygiene—projects which save lives. There is no substitute for the unique experiences, relationships and specialisms of local and national civil society organisations. They will be vital to tackling the global pandemic. The latest Bond survey found that 52% of small NGOs have had to cut back on programming working across the global south, removing the lifesaving work they do. I am concerned by how little UK aid has gone to local organisations. Will the Secretary of State ensure that any new plan her Department is involved in, including any revised UN global humanitarian response plan, contains a genuine commitment to scaling up a locally led approach, including women and girls’ rights organisations, large and small INGOs, faith groups and trade unions? As ever, I am here to support and assist.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. I will do my best to answer them all in turn.

On funding allocation, we have so far committed £276 million for resilience, with multinational organisations and UN appeals alongside the International Red Cross and the Unilever project. Some £380 million is focused on the vaccine, drugs and therapeutics space through CEPI, FIND—the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics—Wellcome and so on, alongside the economic response with the IMF commitment of £150 million and the Gavi investment, which will all be part of the delivery of the vaccine.

I was not aware of the UNICEF statistics on vaccine treatment numbers that the hon. Lady raised, so I will ask my officials to get in touch with her and look closely at that. I thank her for raising that issue with me today.

The event on Monday was co-ordinated by the EU and co-hosted by a number of leaders, including our own Prime Minister. It was a coalition of the willing: a gathering together of those, mostly European, nations who wanted to show their support and solidarity on the international front. We are working closely with the USA on vaccines and more widely on delivery. That continues separately. The USA’s commitment is enormous, and not just internally. I was talking with the new United States Agency for International Development chief, John Barsa earlier in the week about how they are going to focus in the medium term on the substantial commitment the US always makes to supporting vulnerable countries. That will be an ongoing conversation and I think the commitment from USAID is unstinting in that space.

The hon. Lady raised the very important issue of how the conditions go with the funding we put in. That is why we have invested our funds through CEPI and FIND. Both organisations put their money into appropriate projects with an understanding and a contractual relationship that ensures that those scientific programmes will then be accessible to all. It is a really important and secure way—if that is the right way to describe it—of ensuring that UK taxpayers’ money really does reach vulnerable countries when the technologies are discovered.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady on food insecurity. This is absolutely a critical question that we must not lose sight of as we are fighting this disease in the short term. The impact on the most vulnerable countries of food insecurity has not gone away. The threat of locust plagues in just one part of the globe is one critical function we need to get on top of. We are starting to see, as everyone looks up from their own domestic challenges, the great challenge that we have. If we do not support tackling all the other critical preventable death areas, we will find that we cannot tackle this disease. As I said earlier, no one is safe until we are all safe.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. She will be aware of the World Health Organisation, and there have been some criticisms of it. Do we agree with those criticisms, and are we reviewing the funding of the WHO?

I thank my hon. Friend for that really important question. I do not think anyone would suggest that the WHO is a perfect organisation, but it is an extraordinary organisation, because it has the legitimacy of pretty much every country on the planet. It is a profoundly experienced and wise organisation in all matters health, and it has the ability to reach and to support every country around the globe. We are one of its largest core funders, we have been for many years and we will continue that. There are always lessons to be learned, and in something like a global pandemic, we will no doubt be in a whole new territory of lessons to be learned and of understanding where countries and multilateral organisations were able to do well, but the reality is that the WHO is the central point—the central hub—and we will continue to support it absolutely throughout the crisis and to work, as we have in the past, to find ways to help it become a slicker, more effective organisation in the future.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement, and I welcome all measures taken to assist a multilateral international response to this crisis.

The warnings about the impact of covid-19 on the world’s poorest, most vulnerable people have been clear: uncontrolled spread of the virus to fragile states and in refugee camps; a famine of biblical proportions and worldwide economic devastation, resulting in 30 years of the UK’s international development work being undone. However, if we do not tackle covid everywhere, we face the prospect of the infection returning to the UK in a mutated form. What specific measures, beyond aid, are the Government taking to ensure that we tackle covid everywhere? For example, will postponing debt repayments for developing countries be extended beyond 2020, until we know that covid has been eradicated, and will private creditors and multilateral institutions be included in that? What specific public health expertise and medical equipment will be provided to developing countries, and how will wide-scale vaccination programmes be rolled out in countries in conflict, such as Yemen and Syria?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. He and I are very aligned in terms of the wider implications and the secondary impacts that we risk seeing unless we can be really forward thinking in supporting the weakest and most vulnerable countries.

The hon. Gentleman asked about debt relief and the work that has been pulled together by the World Bank and the IMF. We have been an integral part of the conversation, as an important member of those organisations. This is very much a rolling activity. Countries are working on building up country plans and sharing those with the World Bank to understand how, as a whole, the economic community can best support the countries we are talking about to move forward. To answer the question about 2020, there is not an answer as yet, because it is a continuing and rolling conversation with each country, led by the World Bank.

We are looking across our portfolio of programme activity, much of which is in the humanitarian space and in the refugee camps, to make sure that we can repurpose and refocus the work we are doing in the short term, so that we do all we can to get the best healthcare outcomes possible in each of those programme areas.

In terms of delivering vaccines, we are committed to investing in Gavi, because it has both the delivery programme and the respect of so many countries around the globe. Those countries in most conflict will challenge us all, but an organisation such as Gavi, with the support of other UN agencies, is the most effective chance we have to ensure that everybody is vaccinated.

I welcome this statement, but, like the Secretary of State, I am terrified of the pandemic hitting the global south, not least because of the existing weaknesses in its healthcare. What is she doing to support UK NGO organisations to deliver their core work as well as covid-19 work, and is this the time for DFID to develop a global health strategy?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. DFID has, and has had, a very clear strategy, and we were working before the crisis hit on refreshing that and on thinking, over the next few years, how we want to direct the 0.7% that this country has committed to. That continues, perhaps in a more urgent and more focused way than it did before, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right that we must make sure that we think more broadly than just urgent healthcare on covid. The risk of the impacts of preventable deaths in other spheres is very great, unless our programming continues in those key spaces.

The executive director of the World Food Programme recently told the Security Council that covid-19 would cause a famine “of biblical proportions”. This will not only cost lives in the immediate term, but—unless nutrition is considered as a central plank of the global covid-19 response—cause lifelong health problems for millions of young children. Will my right hon. Friend therefore commit to ensuring that DFID’s response to covid-19 has nutrition at its very core, to ensure that we do not leave this crisis and sleepwalk into another?

My right hon. Friend is right that nutrition is critical to avoiding long-term negative impacts of covid-19 on child growth and development, so the UK remains committed to preventing and treating malnutrition as part of our commitment to ending the preventable deaths of mothers, newborns and children. We are working with partners and stakeholders to better understand, track and monitor the potential impact of covid on nutrition, and we are continuing to work closely with the Government of Japan to ensure that the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit secures new commitments to nutrition.

The UN Secretary-General described covid-19 as

“menacing the whole of humanity—and so the whole of humanity must fight back.”

Without an immediate global response, the world risks up to 1 billion people getting covid-19 infections, and millions of deaths in fragile states and developing countries. Time is running out. What further action—on top of what the Secretary of State has said—will the UK Government take to lead the global effort for a global economic and humanitarian response before the situation becomes catastrophic?

The UN Secretary-General is right that this virus is a menace to the whole of humanity. The challenge that we all have—which is why it must be a global, international response—is to ensure that we all appreciate that sorting out our own domestic situations is only stage one of the process of dealing with and getting rid of the virus. We will continue to focus all our efforts on driving the programmes that DFID runs, and on working to get the most coherent and effective outputs from all the multilateral organisations of which we are a part.

It is a delight to join you remotely, Mr Speaker. I thank my right hon. Friend for all that her Department is doing internationally to support the international vaccine effort and all those in need. How is the Department ensuring that partner countries in receipt of UK aid to support their response to the covid-19 pandemic are also abiding by their human rights obligations, especially at a time when lockdowns and public health measures, although necessary, give Governments a great deal of authority and power, which in some countries risk being deployed to support authoritarian objectives?

In many countries with weak governance or ongoing conflicts, covid-19 is raising social tensions and posing a challenge to peace processes and respect for human rights, so we are working alongside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Promotion of human rights is a core part of DFID’s strategy, and that never changes. DFID is taking steps to ensure that both our immediate response to covid and our long-term recovery efforts do not exacerbate conflict, but instead help to build peace and improve governance.

The closing of borders in many African countries not only means that it is very difficult to get humanitarian aid to refugee camps, where people are living in conditions of overcrowding and poor sanitation; it also means that tens of thousands of migrants are trapped at the borders, sometimes having been abandoned there by people smugglers, or stuck in transit camps. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that people in those conditions are being helped and are avoiding the risk of coronavirus?

The challenge of supporting those refugee camps and getting the relevant supplies in to them has been one that has challenged many as those borders closed in the immediate start of the crisis. We are supporting this through a number of international organisations, notably the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN agencies that still have the best access and safety routes in, to ensure that we do as much as we can to support those communities.

Across the globe, data is key to tackling covid-19. Will my right hon. Friend tell us of the help being given to Tanzania, in particular, where there have been accusations of false data, of night-time secret burials and of a cover-up of the true scale of the crisis?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. The challenge of misinformation and of supporting Governments to be honest and ask for the help they need to support them through their own communities’ crises is critically important, and we will reach out. I will take her point on Tanzania and ask the DFID team to look at that specifically, but the challenge is for all countries to know that we are all in this together and that sharing information and asking for the help they need is the right way forward, rather than trying to pretend that this is not happening.

Office for National Statistics figures in the UK have shown that covid-19 hits the poorest the hardest, with mortality rates double those seen in more affluent areas. How much greater, then, is the danger in fragile countries that have nowhere near our healthcare capacity, tiny numbers of healthcare workers and much higher levels of vulnerability? Does the Secretary of State agree that this is not the time to defund the World Health Organisation, as President Trump has done, but rather to ensure that it is properly funded to co-ordinate the fight against this pandemic and save millions of lives? Will she undertake to strengthen rather than undermine the institutions that lead international efforts to defeat this awful pandemic?

I agree that the challenge of understanding and being able to predict who are the most vulnerable groups in the more vulnerable countries is one that is taxing scientists. Even though the communities are perhaps younger, and the virus does not appear to attack young people, the threat of HIV and the risk of malnutrition can create enormous numbers of preventable deaths. There is a huge piece of work going on there. As I have said, the UK remains absolutely committed to the WHO, and I am working closely with all our UN agencies to ensure that we get the very best from them across the globe.

If the UK is going to avoid future coronavirus pandemics, we are going to need to do a lot more to improve global biosecurity. What is the Department doing in respect of bushmeat and wet markets, whether they are in China or anywhere else in the world?

Conclusive evidence on the origin of the mode of transmission of covid-19 is not yet with us, but it is essential that strict food hygiene and health standards are met and we support the WHO’s position that markets should close if those standards are not met. We welcome China’s decision on 24 February to put in place a ban on the sale for food of all meat other than from livestock or poultry and to work towards a better place.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Minister has spoken well, and I thank her for her comments. I am heartened that we continue to meet our obligations. However, I stress the fact that there are projects that in December were sustained by thousands of pounds of support but have lost it all as people stop all outgoing non-essential direct debits. One project that I support is in Swaziland, and its children are supposed to be here right now singing in concerts in my constituency and around Northern Ireland, raising money to support the orphanage for the year that they have nothing for. What help can we deliver for projects that are not supported by the Government thus far but are in real dire need?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The challenge of fundraising for charities and organisations that have really great objectives and reach out to the most vulnerable is indeed a challenge, but I would refer anyone to Captain Moore’s efforts. It is possible to raise money in different and novel ways, and I encourage everyone out there to come up with brilliant new ideas to support the charities and causes they most believe in.

I am very proud to co-chair the all-party group for Fairtrade, alongside the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). Earlier this year we welcomed a Fairtrade cocoa farmer from the Ivory Coast to Parliament. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what her Department is doing to safeguard and support Fairtrade supply chains during this global covid pandemic?

We are engaging with businesses in the UK and developing countries to understand the challenges they are facing in protecting incomes and livelihoods and in ensuring that supply chains remain resilient. To tackle the factors driving covid-19-induced food insecurity and to keep farmers’ supply chains open, we are repurposing programmes in agriculture, social protection and humanitarian assistance. In all of these we continue to put the poorest and most marginalised at the heart of our programmes to address the underlying causes of chronic hunger.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming, the House entered into hybrid substantive proceedings (Order, 22 April).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member contributing virtually.]

Business of the House (6 May)

Motion made,


(1) The following arrangements shall apply to today’s business:



Remote division designation

Business Statement

Up to 30 minutes


Census: Motion to approve the draft Census (England and Wales) Order 2020

Up to 90 minutes


(2) At the conclusion of each debate, the Speaker shall put the Question on each of the motions on the Order Paper relating to the business listed in the table for that debate.—(James Morris.)

The Speaker declared the Question to be agreed to (Order (4), 22 April).