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House of Commons Hansard
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Import of Medical Products
12 May 2020
Volume 676
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12. What steps he is taking to expedite the import of essential medical products during the Covid-19 outbreak. [902518]

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13. What steps he is taking to expedite the import of essential medical products during the Covid-19 outbreak. [902543]

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We continue to work tirelessly to secure vital supplies of medical equipment from overseas partners to meet UK demand. Hundreds of millions of units of PPE have been procured and over 2,000 ventilators have arrived in the UK thanks to our trade and FCO networks.

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Across the world, we are being advised to wash our hands with soap regularly to keep us safe from the virus, but the average import tariff on soap among WTO members stands at 17%, with some countries charging tariffs of up to 65%. What steps has the Minister taken to seek global agreement to reduce tariffs on the import of soap and other hygiene products, to combat the spread of covid-19?

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That is a very good question and I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking it. We are working tirelessly, at different international fora, to ensure that trade barriers—either long-standing barriers or ones that have been thrown up as a result of the crisis—are reduced or removed. For example, just last month, at the UK’s initiative, the G20 Trade Ministers met and discussed a lot of these and took significant action. We have also been lobbying bilaterally, most successfully, with India to ensure that such barriers are reduced or removed.

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It is shameful that our national stockpile of PPE dwindled during years of austerity. The Government’s response since has been one of confusion and panic—missing three chances to join the EU scheme to bulk buy PPE, and with the recent fiasco of flying in unusable gowns from Turkey. What discussions are Ministers having with the Governments of New Zealand, Singapore and other WTO countries to support global efforts to keep medical supply chains running during and beyond this crisis?

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We are extremely active at the WTO and other forums, including the G20, to ensure that products flow. We have delivered 1.22 billion items of PPE to the NHS, which is a tremendous achievement. That includes 40 million safety goggles and 1.3 billion face masks; the numbers are substantial. On the action that we are taking at the WTO, we continue to lobby at all levels. May I just correct the hon. Gentleman on one point—about the delivery of 400,000 Turkish gowns? That number represents a tiny proportion of the total, and only a tiny proportion of those gowns were actually found to be defective. We are very thankful to Turkish suppliers for what they have done.

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It would be remiss of me not to welcome the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) to her new role.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I also thank my colleagues for asking such vital questions about shortages of PPE and other essential medical supplies?

One area where we have, thankfully, not seen shortages to date is the supply of prescription medicines, thanks to the so-called Brexit buffer of supplies built up in preparation for a no-deal Brexit. But given that this buffer only provides somewhere between three to six months of supplies, will the Minister tell us how the Government are getting on with replenishing these stocks from imports, so that we do not experience any shortages once the Brexit buffer starts to run out?

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I join the Secretary of the State in welcoming the right hon. Lady to her position. After four years of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), we always look forward to seeing somebody new at the Dispatch Box.

Again, we are active in all available forums to ensure that the UK’s supply of prescription and non-prescription medicines continues. For example, following the restrictions that India put in place on 3 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been very active with the Indian Trade Minister to get almost all those restrictions removed. We will continue to be active with all our trade partners to ensure that products continue to flow to our NHS at this time.