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Volume 759: debated on Wednesday 4 February 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent progress they have made on tackling Ebola in West Africa.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is leading the international response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. It is clear that this strategy is working. There are signs that the infection rate is falling in Sierra Leone. This is real progress and a cause for cautious optimism that we can beat this disease. We remain focused on defeating the outbreak completely.

My Lords, just before Christmas, Professor Chris Whitty, chief scientific adviser to DfID, said in evidence to the Public Accounts Committee in the other place:

“There is a high chance that when we look back on this epidemic more people who did not have Ebola will have died as a result of the Ebola epidemic”.

Does the Minister agree that this reinforces the case for universal healthcare systems, free at the point of access, and that we should use this language in a stand-alone health goal in the forthcoming UN negotiations to replace the MDGs?

It is clear that there have been problems with other diseases in the affected areas, as people have not come forward for treatment, so the noble Lord is absolutely right. It is extremely important that in the future we take forward the strengthening of their health provision—that is clearly necessary. It is essential when the new SDGs are agreed that health is there, underpinning what happens in terms of human development.

My Lords, do the Government have any plans for a post-Ebola crisis in Africa? Owing to transport and communications breakdown and to movement restrictions, farmers have not been able to sell last year’s harvest and they therefore do not have the cash to buy the inputs for the following year’s harvest. Therefore, it is at the next harvest—that is, this year—when the real nutritional crises are going to start in all the countries of west Africa. I hope that the Government are making plans to deal with that inevitable crisis.

The international community is well aware of the challenge that the noble Lord has mentioned. The UNDP will complete its regional Ebola recovery assessments by the end of February. Those will be comprehensive and address those kinds of questions.

My Lords, during a pastoral visit to Sierra Leone in mid-December, I heard affirmation of the extraordinary commitment of British forces and British work in that country. There was much expression of admiration and gratitude. There was also much concern about future outbreaks of Ebola. What thinking have the Government given to how future outbreaks might be prevented?

I am very pleased to see the most reverend Primate in his place—a number of us were extremely concerned when he came back from Sierra Leone and was not himself well, so it is great to see him here. He is absolutely right: the international community is focusing on trying to ensure that we do not find ourselves in this situation again. The WHO has looked at its own reform and other international bodies will too, but it is vital that we learn the lessons of this particular epidemic.

My Lords, the pharmaceutical industry claims that the reason why an Ebola vaccine had not been developed was that the number of victims was likely to be small compared to, for example, malaria. Does it have nothing to do with the poverty of the people affected or their inability to pay a market price for the drug? Does my noble friend agree that, but for the heroic efforts of hundreds of mainly local health workers, the Ebola outbreak could have become a pandemic, with possibly millions of victims, all for the want of a vaccine? Are the Government pressing industry to accept, in poor countries, production costs-plus payments for the vaccine, as happens for AIDS treatments in poor countries, with significant success?

My noble friend is right that there are models for how this might be taken forward and he is right that there were real risks of a pandemic. The United Kingdom and its NHS workers have actually played a pretty key role in stemming that, so that it did not become a pandemic. Certainly, in terms of the development of vaccines, that is another area that we need to investigate.

My Lords, we have known about Ebola for 40 years, yet we still have no vaccine and no cure. Does the Minister agree that the cost of bringing that drug forward and taking it through the necessary regulatory process means that pharmaceutical companies prefer to focus on the diseases of the rich than on poor people’s diseases in Sierra Leone?

I am quite encouraged by what is happening in terms of vaccines for Ebola. As the noble Baroness might be aware, clinical trials have already started in Liberia, and the UK and the CDC are looking at rolling out trials in Sierra Leone.

My Lords, while congratulating the brave volunteers who have done so much to bring this epidemic under control, and while it is good news that there is light at the end of the tunnel, would my noble friend consider asking the World Health Organization to publish its internal review on why the early response to this epidemic was so bad and why it downplayed the problem when it had already become known to other agencies?

I am sure that there will be continued discussion as to the lessons we must learn. However, it was welcome that the WHO held a special session to look at some of those lessons and try to take that forward.

My Lords, while welcoming the progress that the noble Baroness outlined and the recognition that I understand is to come of British citizens who contributed to that progress, would she agree that the next phase of the fight in Sierra Leone will be even more challenging: not to let up on the drive to zero cases in the current outbreak; to make up for the healthcare that has not been given in terms of immunisations, maternity and neonatal care, malaria and NTDs; and to provide the structures for robust responses to any outbreaks that might occur in future?

Indeed, the noble Baroness is right that we cannot be complacent. As I am sure she knows, we need 42 days of an Ebola-free situation in all the relevant countries. We then need to reconstruct. That needs to be transparent and accountable. When I met the relevant Ministers from Sierra Leone, that was certainly something I emphasised from the UK Government.