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House of Lords Hansard
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25 July 2019
Volume 799

Question

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to help those areas affected by the latest outbreak of Ebola which has been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization.

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My Lords, last week the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in the DRC a public health emergency of international concern. This is a wake-up call to the international community that Ebola is a problem that cannot be ignored. We recognise the gravity of the situation, and that is why, two days before the WHO declaration, the UK announced an additional £50 million of funding for the response in DRC. Now others must follow suit.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer and, indeed, for the money that has been made available. One of the most effective ways of rolling out preventative health education is to use local indigenous leadership. In 2015, Christian Aid and other charities recommended that NGOs should engage with local faith leaders for this purpose. Are Her Majesty’s Government following this advice? Secondly, with daily flights between DRC and Europe, given the highly infectious nature of this disease, will she explain to the House the steps that are being taken for our own domestic preparedness?

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I agree with the right reverend Prelate on the importance of getting education on this out, and community engagement remains one of the most important factors that will help in any outbreak. Strengthening this aspect of the response is a key part of the ongoing reset which the UK and other partners have pushed for. The response is increasingly working with religious leaders to help foster community trust and ownership and, on top of our wider support, we are funding anthropological research into community dynamics, which is working with faith leaders.

On the right reverend Prelate’s second question, we do of course have screening at the airports in the affected areas, but the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office is co-ordinating the UK’s preparedness, working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Transport and UK Border Force. We manage a returning workers scheme: people who have travelled to the area register, and we monitor their health. We have the expertise to handle a case of Ebola in the UK, with two high-level isolation units. We undertake a risk assessment every two weeks and monitor the situation daily. The current assessment is that the risk to the UK is negligible to very low.

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My Lords, I visited Sierra Leone during the last Ebola outbreak, and very much endorse what the right reverend Prelate said about the critical importance—we left it too late in that outbreak—of gaining the trust of communities through religious leaders and through young people from their own communities in order to adhere to public health measures. During that outbreak, we did not have the option of a vaccination, and that is why many front-line healthcare workers in west Africa died during that outbreak. We have a vaccine this time, but I know that there are concerns both about stocks and availability of the current vaccine and about the potential use of a second vaccine. Can the Minister give us any information on that issue?

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The noble Baroness is right to highlight the benefits that the vaccine has brought. Previously, an outbreak of Ebola was passed on to four people; now, it is just one, following the vaccine. We should be very proud that UK aid played a part in developing that vaccine. We are working closely with the vaccine manufacturer and the Chief Medical Officer in the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that we have enough. We are monitoring the numbers of vaccine that would be needed, and we are investing in further research to ensure that we are prepared for another outbreak.

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My Lords, can I pay tribute to Rory Stewart, who went to Geneva and made the plea, made the pledge and encouraged other Governments to work on this? This disease knows no national boundaries, and it is important that we address the issue globally. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, mentioned the need to build community action and public health awareness, and we need to use every method of communication. In Sierra Leone, we used local radio, other projects and schools—changing behaviour was critical. In this very difficult situation of a war zone, can the Minister reassure us that we are able to build that community action?

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I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to my right honourable friend Rory Stewart. He achieved a lot in his short time at DfID, passionately advocating for what 0.7% can do, putting climate and the environment at the heart of what we do and co-ordinating our response to Ebola and really pushing the agenda on that. I am sure that our new Secretary of State will continue that good work. The noble Lord is also right to point out the importance of communication. We are working on every angle of that, ensuring that we do so in the correct languages, using media where we can. I mentioned the anthropological research that we are doing, which is looking into how we can best spread the message, rather than the disease.

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My Lords, the outbreak in the DRC has already affected two neighbouring countries, Uganda and Rwanda. Given that Rwanda takes up the chair of the Commonwealth meeting next year, with the CHOGM in Kigali in June 2020, there is an opportunity to focus a spotlight on neglected tropical diseases. I welcome the fact that the Minister is still in her place at the Dispatch Box. What will this Government do to ensure that the proposed summit on NTDs and malaria gives Ebola high prominence and successfully generates the resources and political will to deliver on Commonwealth and SDG commitments?

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We are the leading donor for regional preparedness and will certainly be working with Rwanda to ensure that it is firmly on the agenda.

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My Lords, as has already been said, it is important to control the spread of Ebola. Can my noble friend say whether local schools are closed in eastern DRC? Would that help to reduce the spread of this infection?

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I thank my noble friend for that question. Of course, as I said, we are doing all we can to reduce infection. Unlike in Sierra Leone, schools in the affected area currently remain open; so far, they have not been identified as a major source of transmission. In west Africa, we saw that school closures could have many negative and long-lasting effects on children and the surrounding communities. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out, schools are actually a way in which we can educate people on this. Our support for UNICEF helps to fund infection prevention and control work in schools near confirmed cases. While the ultimate decision to shut schools rests with the Government of the DRC, it is something that the UK monitors closely.