Motion to Consider
That the Virtual Proceedings do consider the international response to COVID-19.
The Motion was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on the UK’s international response to Covid-19—the biggest threat that we have faced in decades. A global pandemic needs a global response, and the international community must work together to tackle this virus so that we can all be safe from future waves of infection.
The UK has a proud history of leading international efforts to tackle global problems. Despite the challenges we are facing at home, we are determined to fulfil our role in the international response. The UK has been playing, and will continue to play, a leading role in galvanising the most effective co-ordinated international action through our international strategy, leadership and partners. We are tackling this crisis using the full range of development, diplomatic, national security, prosperity and influencing tools to address the direct and wide-ranging secondary impacts.
We are funding global research into therapeutics, diagnostics and a vaccine, recognising the urgent need to equitably distribute a treatment once it becomes available. We are protecting the poorest and most vulnerable people and working to ensure that no one is left behind. We are supporting British nationals across the world and getting people home when we can; and, of course, we are looking to the future and investing in a clean and resilient global recovery.
Our UK aid support has reinforced our international leadership. The Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor, and Health and DfID Secretaries of State have all been actively engaging in dialogue with world leaders and other international groups—and our engagement is making a difference. We are playing a key role in the multilateral response to Covid-19. We have encouraged the G7 and G20 to act, and have called on international organisations to co-ordinate and increase support for vulnerable countries and to deliver the appropriate international financial and health system assistance.
Working with our G20 partners, we have ensured that critical supply chains remain open for food and medicines, and we have driven agreement on the finance ministers’ action plan for the immediate response and a clean and resilient recovery.
We are investing in vaccines and global health. The UK is proud to have world-class scientific and medical research facilities. British scientists have driven major breakthroughs throughout the history of global health, in epidemiology, immunology and vaccinations. Continuing this tradition, the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce has just provided an additional £84 million of new funding for Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing at Oxford University and Imperial College, bringing the total government investment for these institutions to over £130 million.
The Oxford team is also working in partnership with the great British company AstraZeneca to ensure that any successful vaccine could be rapidly produced to meet global demand. The agreement will deliver 100 million doses in total, ensuring that in addition to supporting our own people we are able to make vaccines available to developing countries at the lowest possible cost. British researchers who built diagnostic kits for Ebola are also working on new rapid diagnostics for Covid-19.
However, our domestic efforts are just one piece of the puzzle in solving this pandemic. No country can do this alone. To maximise our chances of finding a workable vaccine as quickly as possible, the UK has committed £250 million of UK aid to the global Covid-19 initiative by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations—CEPI. This is the largest single contribution by any country to date. The UK is also working closely with CEPI, the World Health Organization and our international partners to ensure that, when a vaccine is available, it will be accessible to everyone who needs it as soon as possible.
Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister co-hosted a virtual summit to raise funds for the global coronavirus response. We called on all world leaders to increase their ambition in this urgent shared endeavour. The global community heeded this call and pledged approximately £6.5 billion for Covid-19 research and supporting activities, including the UK’s own £313 million commitment for vaccines, tests and treatments and £75 million for the World Health Organization. This funding will equip us to fight the virus at home in the UK and across the world.
To further strengthen international efforts on vaccines, on 4 June the UK will host the global vaccine summit for Gavi, the global alliance that provides vaccinations in 68 of the world’s poorest countries. Gavi will be critical to the international co-ordination and operational delivery of a Covid-19 vaccine—at scale, at a price people can afford and available as needed. To this end, the UK has also committed to the equivalent of £330 million a year to Gavi for the next five years. This all builds on our existing significant aid programming on health system strengthening, clean water and sanitation, and global health security.
While we are searching for a cure, we cannot forget the most vulnerable, who are suffering the devastating effects of Covid-19 right now. We have committed up to £744 million of UK aid to support the global response and address both the primary and secondary impacts. This includes building resilience in vulnerable countries and supporting the economic response. We are also pivoting existing work to provide targeted health, humanitarian and economic support. We are paying particular attention to the needs of the most vulnerable. Our funding for UNHCR is focused on supporting refugees. Our support to UNFPA and UNICEF will protect the rights of women and girls, including addressing gender-based violence and ensuring continued access to sexual and reproductive healthcare.
We recognise that NGOs are key partners in responding to the unprecedented challenges of Covid-19. Through direct funding, country programmes and multilateral support, we will work closely with NGOs, which are often best placed to meet the needs of those most at risk. UK aid is also working closely with British businesses such as Unilever to tackle the pandemic. Our £100 million mutual partnership, with £50 million from DfID, will tell 1 billion people around the world about the importance of hygiene. This project will provide significant extra funding to well-known British NGOs such as WaterAid.
To manage the economic impact, the UK has committed, with our G20 partners, to suspend debt service payments from the poorest countries to the end of this year. Implementation by the G20 will provide $12 billion in fiscal space, which can be spent on healthcare and managing the impacts of Covid-19. The UK also made a leading contribution of £150 million to the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust to fund debt repayments to the IMF from the poorest countries.
Thanks to UK leadership—we pushed early for a capital increase of the World Bank in 2018 and we are the largest donor to the International Development Association—the multilateral development banks are in a strong position to respond rapidly to this crisis. With UK support, they are making $200 billion of financing available to developing countries over the next 15 months, with streamlined procedures to ensure rapid disbursement.
We are also reducing the impact on businesses in developing countries. For example, to help companies access the finance they need and to protect supply chains and jobs overseas, the CDC, the UK’s development finance institution, is continuing to invest patiently and is working alongside other DFIs to maximise efforts. UK Ministers will continue to engage with Governments across the globe to ensure that critical supply chains and transport routes remain open for food and medicine. Within the G20, the UK has called for reduced tariffs on essential Covid-related medicines, pharmaceuticals and products.
We are also supporting British nationals across the world. The pandemic has seen borders shut and transport routes suspended. Like many countries, a top priority has been getting our nationals home and supporting our nationals unable to return in keeping safe as they remain overseas. We are working closely with Canada and the US in the G7 on global travel and keeping passenger and freight hubs open. We have worked tirelessly with international partners and commercial airlines to get people home. We estimate that more than 1.3 million people have returned to the UK through commercial routes since the outbreak of the virus, with many benefiting from FCO’s work with airlines and foreign Governments. With funding of up to £75 million, we have worked with UK airlines to arrange 142 specially chartered flights for more than 30,000 people. Additionally, almost 20,000 people have returned home from cruise ships with our help.
We are also planning for our future beyond Covid-19. We need a clean and resilient global recovery. It will be more crucial than ever to think about the connection between healthy lives, healthy societies and a healthy environment, which are at the heart of the sustainable development goals. The UK played an instrumental role in establishing the SDGs; even before Covid-19, we knew that global progress was off track.
This will be alongside continued work on other priorities, including our manifesto commitments, which are all critical parts of a clean and sustainable recovery. We are committed to leveraging the best UK Government offer on critical issues such as providing 12 years of quality education for girls, ending preventable deaths and tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, including through hosting COP 26, which now will be next year.
Covid-19 does not respect national borders and 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 to support both the current international Covid-19 response and longer-term recovery. As the Prime Minister said on 4 May at the Coronavirus Global Response Summit:
“It’s humanity against the virus—we are in this together and together we will prevail.”
My Lords, I start by drawing attention to my interests in the register. I thank the Minister for securing this debate and for her comprehensive introduction, setting the scene for what I am sure will be an interesting three hours.
This pandemic has highlighted yet again—perhaps more starkly than ever before—just how interdependent our world is. As the UK sits on the G7 in June and the UN Security Council in the lead-up to the summits that will take place in September, it will undoubtedly focus on recovery and future resilience. It is vital that the UK plays a role way beyond encouraging the comprehensive availability of a vaccine to make sure that there is a proper economic recovery globally and that there is a resilience in our systems to help us to cope better everywhere in future.
In that economic recovery, we need to remember the importance of education. It is not just in this country that young children are missing out on education; it is happening in every corner of the globe. In pursuing critical economic and health measures, I hope that the UK does not forget the vital importance of getting children, particularly those in the poorest parts of the world, back to school.
My final point relates to the Decade of Action UN summit planned for September. The sustainable development goals give us a framework for greater resilience in not just our health system but our economy around the world. This pandemic should reinforce our commitment to the global goals and ensure a greater degree of determination, both at home and abroad, in implementing and delivering them in a decade of action between now and 2030.
My Lords, as the Minister pointed out, Covid-19 is an international problem that necessitates global responses. The previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, has already criticised the international response.
Today, the Minister has given a very ebullient speech outlining what the United Kingdom plans to do. If everything can be delivered, we would all welcome it. However, it is very clear from the House of Lords Library briefing that the UK is trying to do four things, one of which—bringing our people home—is very important, but predominantly a domestic issue. Two of the matters have a touch of hubris about them. One is that the UK should seek to co-ordinate a global health response, the other that we should look to create a sound economic response. Both are highly desirable, but just days after the BMJ has suggested that it is clear that the UK’s response so far has been neither well prepared nor remotely adequate at home, one wonders what the Government will be able to deliver internationally. However, the Government’s willingness to contribute on vaccines and host the Gavi summit in June is clearly most welcome.
Last week, the International Relations and Defence Committee had the honour of hearing from Dr Okonjo-Iweala, who talked about African responses and concerns. She highlighted the economic hit of Covid-19. What can the Minister say about how far the Government will be able to assist the global south? Will the money being committed be sufficient for the global south, particularly to ensure that vaccines will be available, as the Minister claims?
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register and join others in welcoming the tone of the Minister’s introduction to the debate. There has never been a more important time for the UK to continue its investment in development and global health. We know from our own experience that the effects of the coronavirus are not spread fairly and equitably across the population and are not limited to those infected by the disease itself. Those wider effects—economic, social and health threats—are even more devastating in poorer communities and countries. They can overwhelm already overstretched health services and social safety nets, and undermine fragile economies. We have the chance to intervene to limit the spread of the disease and the damage it does indirectly.
As Covid-19 spreads to malaria-endemic countries, it is essential that we recognise the threat to the progress that has been made against that disease in recent decades and to hundreds of thousands of lives that could be put at risk by a malaria outbreak and upsurge. According to the WHO, severe disruption to net campaigns and other vital services could lead to a doubling of malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. We saw in west Africa during the Ebola outbreak an estimated 7,000 additional deaths from malaria in those aged under five, caused by the diversion of services and the end to malaria services that are so essential. We must act to prevent that happening this time. I hope the Minister will assure me that we will continue our leading role in malaria prevention.
My Lords, thankfully, the virus appears to be spreading slowly in most African countries, with Lesotho declaring its first case only last week. However, the World Bank forecasts that Covid-19 could push 49 million people into extreme poverty. The economic impact on some poorer nations could be more detrimental than the health threat. The aid Her Majesty’s Government committed at the international pledging event will be vital for the poorest nations, but our international response must be sustainable, which requires trade, not simply aid. What actions have Her Majesty’s Government taken to ensure that good free trade agreements are made with poorer nations?
Global hunger may be the next pandemic, with the UN recently reporting that global food insecurity could double due to measures to combat coronavirus. For example, despite the Rwandan Government’s emergency relief measures during their country’s lockdown, the effects of the lockdown on access to food is becoming greater, leaving many Rwandans extremely hungry. How do HMG plan to support countries that face significant hunger?
The virus’s economic impact has been compounded in Rwanda by devastating floods that have destroyed essential crops and left many Rwandans displaced, forcing people into makeshift camps. What assessment have HMG made of how natural disasters have exacerbated the threats of coronavirus for some of the poorest nations?
Misinformation is detrimental when fighting a pandemic in poorer countries. Therefore, what do HMG make of Burundi’s decision to expel four World Health Organization representatives on 14 May? As churches are often best placed to communicate information due to their community embedment, what plans do HMG have to work with faith-based organisations to disseminate Covid-19 information?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the King of Bhutan and his people for their amazing fortitude and smart response to the virus.
On 6 March, I witnessed their decisive action following one suspected case: a tourist who had travelled from India. Within 24 hours, every tourist was traced and tracked, and we were contacted daily thereafter. All citizens were asked to socially distance themselves, while trucks travelled across the land distributing sanitiser. A quarantine period of 14 days kicked in for arrivals across the borders and all incoming tourist flights ceased, thereby avoiding a wide-scale lockdown across the country. Philanthropic hoteliers and businessmen supported their efforts and, in stark contrast to our Commons colleagues, all MPs donated a month’s salary to the cause. The king immediately rolled up his sleeves, working with doctors and encouraging anyone feeling unwell to attend clinics. He continues to work tirelessly across the country.
It should be noted that a national preparedness and response plan, together with an emergency committee, had already been devised in late February, and that both the Prime Minister and Health Minister were formerly public health officials. In addition, Bhutan is tech connected: nine year-old trainee monks have mobile phones.
To date, there have been less than 20 cases and no deaths. In the words of a local journalist, Sonam Ongmo:
“Following an evidence-based approach of testing, effective quarantines, and border control, Bhutan has been able to avoid overloading its limited healthcare system … The under-resourced nation’s response, led by science and quick preventative action, has been fortified by its traditional communal values … which has seen its king, citizens, and government work in lockstep to support the nation.”
I hope my noble friend the Minister will join me in congratulating the people of Bhutan and wishing them safe and well for the future.
My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to underline how the UK, even while confronting our own epidemic, must not abandon the world’s most vulnerable people. There is now evidence that the virus will set back programmes and progress in the poorest countries by at least three decades. Statistics from these countries are fragmented, but understanding what we do now about social distancing it is easy to imagine the rapid devastation of populations in overcrowded favelas, slums and shanty towns. Without international help, the fragile economies and weak health systems of those countries may be completely overwhelmed.
As the Minister said, this country has a strong record of building our own aid programmes and supporting the work of international institutions. Today, I ask the Minister for specific assurances about how this will continue. Importantly, will the iconic 0.7% of GNI remain committed to overseas aid? Will future financial assistance focus on loans and debt relief, or will HMG also offer properly targeted grants, essential for business and employment recovery?
I am pleased that the Government remain energetically committed to multilateral assistance through bodies such as the World Health Organization and the World Bank; now is certainly not the time to undermine them. However, I am alarmed by the threats to our own smaller NGOs and charities—often the most successful in delivering assistance on the ground, notably in the 2015 Ebola epidemic. Today, over half of them say that they are reducing programmes, and 43% may close unless they get extra finance in the next six months. Can DfID use some flexible funding mechanism to support them?
Overall, in spite of our own challenges, we must demonstrate global leadership and not retreat to “fortress Britain”.
My Lords, apparent national interest has so often trumped international needs in this pandemic, even though no country can be safe until all are safe. Clearly China has much to answer for. I have sympathy with the WHO, which sought to elicit the information it needed. This clearly drove it to soft pedal the Chinese origin and significance of the infection. The WHO has only the power, resources and will that member states give it. All should now be able to see that strengthening the WHO is in everyone’s interests, yet the United States, far from seeking to bring countries together, threatens the WHO’s funding. There is no superpower leadership there.
We have seen countries competing for equipment and supplies. We may see that with the vaccine. I am glad that the United Kingdom continues its commitment to 0.7% of GNI for aid, and we have long had outstanding scientists in global public health. But development is going backwards, and some leaders are exploiting the crisis to take authoritarian measures. We see misinformation—in which Russia has specialised—now being pumped out by China as well. A dangerous new cold war seems to be building between the USA and China. There has been encouraging co-operation across Africa, with lessons learned from Ebola, but community spread now exists in a number of countries and hunger may not be far behind, as informal incomes are destroyed by economic collapse.
Does the noble Baroness agree that, given the vacuum of leadership from China and the USA, we must work with our European allies to build a more co-ordinated response to the current situation and for the future? As Dr Tedros, director-general of the WHO, said:
“We’re all in this together. And we can only succeed together.”
My Lords, I start by thanking all our and all international front-line workers; you have put yourselves in harm’s way to keep the planet safe, and we owe you all an enduring debt of gratitude that should never be forgotten. I also thank all the scientists, who are world leaders and, as time moves on, will become world savers.
I ask the Minister how we are taking on the learnings internationally into what we do domestically and, indeed, our international programmes when we are in the midst of this crisis. Are there, for example, learnings from Germany about health spend—40,000 ICU beds, 30,000 of which are ventilator-enabled—or is it more to do with a more decentralised public health system? What lessons from South Korea are we embedding into our programmes and those that we will embark on internationally?
On the tracing app, does my noble friend agree that interoperability is critical if we are to have an international network that seeks to solve the problem, rather than individual nations coming up with apps that, in simple terms, cannot speak to one another? Finally, how we are involving our fabulous tech sector in all our international development work on Covid-19? Distributed ledger technology, for example, could play a critical role, when we get to the vaccine stage, in vaccine provenance. Similarly, we could have an immediate programme of micropayment through DLT-enabled platforms. Does she agree that the solution to the Covid-19 international response will come from the right combination of humanity-led technology?
My Lords, this invisible universal virus can affect everyone in every part of the world. So much for the bellicose trumpeting of “Britain going it alone”, torn free from Europe, the world’s largest and most powerful economic bloc with a huge policy reach, as if the days of Empire can be reincarnated in today’s multipolar world of big powers led by self-styled big men like Xi, Modi, Trump and Putin.
In 2009 Gordon Brown saved the world economically by leading the G20 in a joint public-investment-driven recovery from the global financial crisis and prevented a huge global recession from becoming a catastrophic depression but, instead of a co-ordinated international response to the Covid-19 outbreak, countries have manoeuvred for national advantage, competing rather than co-operating over PPE, testing and tracing, Britain woefully failing on all three. Instead of learning with several weeks’ forewarning from Asia, most successfully South Korea with its concerted testing and tracing, lockdown and quarantine, western countries—notably the UK, Italy, Spain, France and the US—all have official death tolls far exceeding those in comparator Asian states, with the UK worst of all in Europe and the US the worst in the world.
As no-deal Brexit beckons, the UK even failed to take advantage of joint EU procurement of PPE, our nationalist zealots instead espousing British exceptionalism and national self-sufficiency. Why have we not joined Germany, Italy, France, Norway and the EU Council and Commission in their call the other week for treatments and vaccines to be shared equally? It is tragic that instead of co-operating to protect the most vulnerable worldwide, countries seem to be racing to get a vaccine for themselves to win commercial and geopolitical benefit.
My Lords, in my allotted two minutes I wish to make five points and pose two questions. Clearly this is a global disease that mutates at a staggering rate, so we cannot afford to leave any disease reservoirs untreated if we are to be successful.
Britain is leading the world in funding a vaccine and we should seek to lead in other medical solutions. We need new global leadership by the UK in the absence of China and America. This provides the United Kingdom with the opportunity to redefine our trading partners post Brexit.
A prolonged lockdown has dire economic consequences, with massive global unemployment, and it will take us until the end of 2021 to fully recover.
The pandemic has accelerated the rate of deglobalisation that started with the US-China trade wars. As several noble Lords have already mentioned, Africa is an obvious case in point that will require enormous support from the developed world in countering this pandemic. This offers the West the opportunity to displace Chinese influence on the continent.
Finally, we need to develop the capability to test and track for various strains in the pandemic. I recently had the antibody test and, to my surprise, found that I was IgG positive, meaning that I have had the virus but am fully recovered and no longer contagious. What is more, I had no idea that I had the virus. Obviously I am relieved that I now have the antibody.
I have two questions for the Minister. First, what are our Government doing to support international trade and the movement of capital and people, thereby promoting the United Kingdom as a bastion of fine free trade? Secondly, what efforts are being taken to promote a unified and international approach to tackling this pandemic?
My Lords, surely one of the few good outcomes of this dreadful virus is the emergence of unprecedented co-operation among health authorities worldwide in fighting it, of which the highest profile is of course the work towards the development of a vaccine. I am grateful to the Minister for telling us the contribution of the United Kingdom. Sadly, all this is of course without the proper leadership that we could have expected from the United States.
The devotion and courage of health workers on the front line and indeed of their support teams in this country are beyond praise, but the organisation and management of the NHS is in need of review, a problem dodged by successive Governments. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—at least I hope so—for Her Majesty’s Government to take advantage of this global identity of mission to appoint a royal commission to compare in unprecedented depth the workings of our National Health Service, with all its brilliant achievements but with its shortcomings too, with those of other national health services worldwide, particularly those adopting a high profile in the current crisis, and recommend from whatever source the adoption of the best practices that the commission can identify.
Back in the 2000s, my noble friend Lord Hague, then leader of the Opposition, mandated my now right honourable friend Liam Fox, who was then shadow Health Minister, to familiarise himself with other health services in the EEA. His firm conclusion was that, for patients and clinicians, Germany was the place to be. I have checked this with Liam Fox, and his current view is that Switzerland now wins by a short head, but this is simply two centres of excellence in comparison with one another. All this would be for the royal commission for find out for itself. These are just two of the examples that we can take from some of our nearest neighbours.
This pandemic presents huge challenges to societies everywhere, and virtually every nation in the world has passed emergency legislation to limit freedoms and create social distancing and quarantine. However, steps taken should be proportionate and time limited, and the problem is that this contagion coincides with another contagion: the rise of populism and authoritarianism. I am the director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, and we are hearing the most appalling accounts and evidence of abuse worldwide. Under the flag of the pandemic, the escalation of human rights abuse is truly alarming, and in some cases horrifying. Are opportunities being taken by the Government to raise human rights abuses?
Everywhere, women face a terrifying increase in domestic violence and murder. In the Middle East, in India and Pakistan, and globally, women are harassed and victimised on social media. They are seeing their children abducted, and marriages forced on girls. In Poland, under the cover of Covid, abortion rights have been removed. The same is going on in parts of the United States. Police and military forces are using the virus as a pretext for rounding up dissidents. They use it to abuse minorities, LGBT people and those whose religion is not the dominant one. Thousands are in detention in El Salvador. In Kazakhstan, there has been a rounding up of people. In the Philippines, Duterte has given instructions to shoot dead anyone breaking the lockdown rules. Throughout India, the opportunity to turn on Muslims has been seized, and we know what has been happening to the Rohingya and the Uighur in China. I am afraid that the pandemic is accelerating the horrors that they are experiencing. In Kashmir, restrictive laws are being enforced in cruel and shocking ways, and the internet lockdown enforced by Modi means that people do not even know how to access help if they are ill.
Journalists are being targeted. In the USA, Trump has declared openly that asylum seekers are to be barred any opportunity to seek sanctuary, even if they are being persecuted. There has been a total dismissal of the international standards that we have been working towards over many years since the Second World War. The list of egregious conduct is long. I sincerely hope that the Government take every opportunity in raising this behaviour in their international interactions. We must remember that silence makes us complicit. In future efforts to secure post-Brexit trade deals, I hope that this behaviour is not forgotten. It should not be buried with the dead.
My Lords, in response to the virus, there have been remarkable and enviable levels of co-operation between members of NATO, Slovenia assisting North Macedonia, Estonia donating medical supplies to Italy and Spain, and Holland helping Montenegro, all while they continue to fulfil the collective military responsibilities of the alliance, such as our enhanced forward presence in the Baltic states and Poland, the air policing necessary to discourage Russian provocative interference in alliance airspace, and the leadership of Estonia in cybersecurity on behalf of the alliance as a whole.
The demands of the virus have not undermined the commitment of co-operation or the membership of the alliance, but rather have enhanced it. There is now an opportunity for the United Kingdom. As we know, viruses can be used as biological weapons. The biological weapons convention bans the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons but, sadly, provides no regime for inspection or for enforcing compliance. At the ninth review conference of the convention in 2021, the United Kingdom should lead the charge for verification. Paradoxically, coronavirus has given us a unique opportunity.
My Lords, when coronavirus started in Wuhan, it was looked on as purely a Chinese problem. We failed to see the impending threat, even though the Chinese had locked down the whole Wuhan area and built an emergency hospital to treat their thousands of patients dying from coronavirus. Furthermore, the World Health Organization should have realised the seriousness of the virus and prepared a blueprint to avoid the global spread. For instance, all international borders could have been closed, and the procurement of face masks, PPE and ventilators—which the Chinese were using to protect their doctors and nurses—should have been encouraged. Had this been done, I have no doubt that the global casualties as of now would have been far fewer. It was only when Italy was hit with the virus that the whole world woke up, but by then it was too late to contain the global spread.
Finally, ahead of the virtual World Health Assembly today and following global calls for a review of the crisis, the UN has said that now is not the time for recriminations and that we must first work together to defeat it. When a vaccine is found, it must be shared with the whole world, including developing and fragile countries.
My Lords, the key question underlying this debate is whether the nations of the developed world will rise to the challenges of tackling Covid-19 globally and not just concentrate on their own country. Will we in the developed world in particular raise the $6.7 billion that the UN is trying to collect? Do the Government think this is a realistic, achievable proposal, or will the outcome be dominated by the nationalist politicians in charge of many countries around the world at the moment, elected on the basis that they will put their own country first?
The UK Government have certainly stumbled in how they have tackled the crisis on the domestic front, but—at least on the international stage—they have been one of the good guys, as we heard very well from the Minister. Can she now assure us that this will continue, as we take the difficult and no doubt self-absorbing path towards ending or easing the current lockdown in the UK? Will we keep our focus global as well as national as we tackle the future?
My Lords, Covid-19 is no respecter of persons. It affects equally the villager in the Amazon and the Prime Minister of the UK. However, the effects of Covid-19 are not experienced equally. The poorest in our world are being hit hardest. Many Christians across the world are working together to mitigate the impact of Covid-19. For example, Christian Aid, the Anglican Community Fund and many other aid agencies have stepped up their charitable efforts in response to the pandemic.
Will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that government initiatives link with the voluntary sector to co-ordinate our response? In places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the churches are running hospitals and public health information campaigns to confront the Ebola outbreak. Indeed, in war zones, where NGOs have had to withdraw their staff because it is too dangerous or where Governments are not functioning, it is often local church leaders who are able to run health education programmes and change behaviours. Will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that local community leaders in those places, including church leaders, are consulted and trained, as in some areas it is the most effective way to prevent further deaths?
Displaced people, such as Syrians in refugee camps and the Rohingya sheltering in Bangladesh, are especially vulnerable. Without decisive action and medical aid, Covid-19 is likely to sweep through those camps rapidly. Will the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what is being done to provide emergency medical aid to the most vulnerable refugee communities?
My Lords, I was part of a Lords Select Committee inquiry into international organisations in 2008 which looked specifically at the World Health Organization. We noted that global pandemics occur about three times a century. I shall quote from the then Government’s evidence to the committee:
“Estimates are that the next pandemic will kill between 2 million and 50 million people worldwide and between 50,000 and 750,000 in the UK. Socio-economic disruption will be massive.”
So the situation today was not entirely unforeseen. I wonder whether the Minister or her colleagues in the Cabinet Office have read that report. It may provide them with some useful insights and lessons that might have been learned.
My second point is to do with the WHO’s international health regulations, introduced in 2005 to improve reporting of public health emergencies of international concern. The innovation in them was that, for the first time, non-governmental sources of information were to be made part of the public health surveillance system. This allowed the WHO to collect and use information from multiple sources, including the media and NGOs, rather than relying on responsible behaviour from member states. They were deemed particularly relevant to those states where there was a culture of secrecy. It seems that these surveillance capabilities were not adequately employed in this instance in China, a country that should have been on the WHO’s radar due to previous animal-to-human transmitted diseases.
That brings me to my final point. The WHO’s World Health Assembly is meeting today but has excluded Taiwan from the meeting. It is clearly a political decision to exclude a country that has not only been a model for fighting Covid-19 but is at the forefront of other public health measures to conduct surveillance of it as we go forward. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have an explanation for why Taiwan has been excluded and what the UK Government’s position overall on Taiwan is?
My Lords, I hope my noble friend will agree that a priority as we emerge from Covid will be re-establishing flourishing trade with developing countries. We are perhaps looking at several years when social distancing and quarantine will make that difficult and it will be harder than usual to build the relationships and trust on which trade depends, so should we not take steps to build on the relationships and trust that we already have? Will my noble friend consider offering substantial benefits to graduates of British schools and universities in developing countries, such as a wide spectrum of assistance in making connections with the UK and getting trade going? These people have affection for and an understanding of our culture. They know how to get on with us. It will be much easier to create relationships at a distance with them than it would be with people who have not spent such a long time here. I am sure that universities and schools will collaborate readily with such an initiative to make their soft power available to the nation at a time when it needs it, just as I am sure the Government and the Home Office in particular are going flat out to support our educational institutions, with finance where necessary but particularly by making sure that students get visas on time and that the overall message we give to students, current and potential, is one of welcome, not uncertainty.
My Lords, I welcome much of what the Minister said. However, it is particularly important that we do not neglect medium-term to longer-term issues by focusing on an immediate response and that in particular we avoid ignoring the huge economic damage that is being done around the world.
When a vaccine is eventually developed, it will be vital to ensure that wealthy countries do not selfishly focus on their own needs, so I was glad to hear the Minister’s plans to try to ensure that poor countries are not priced out and have equal access to the vaccine. We will need to be updated on the implementation of these plans. Other speakers have referred to the unintended consequences of Covid-19 for other preventable diseases such as TB and malaria. If tackling them is neglected, there will be many more deaths than from the virus itself. Family planning and maternal health must also be protected to avoid an increase in maternal and infant mortality in poor countries.
On economic issues, the IMF has forecast a 3% contraction in GDP across Africa next year. This will lead to hunger and hunger-related deaths in poor countries, especially among children. Will the Government take the lead in multilateral fora to support the economies of less developed countries? The Minister mentioned supply chains, but does she agree that action will also need to be taken on debt relief, where debt servicing will throttle economic recovery, on diversification in countries overdependent on one or two commodities, and on support for SMEs and the informal sector? Concerted international action is needed on all of them. Finally, will the Government give high priority to tackling climate change in developing countries, which threatens to devastate the agricultural sector that so many people depend on and which will further undermine their economies?
My Lords, I wholeheartedly endorse the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. I declare an interest as chair of the UK board of the charity Search for Common Ground, which is a global leader in peacebuilding, currently implementing over 140 programmes and successfully partnering with the UK Government in more than 20 countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. I therefore want to address my comments to the impact of Covid-19 in fragile and conflict-afflicted areas.
Covid-19 can shift relationships between civilians and authorities. Poor responses by the authorities may decrease trust, increase risks of violence against civilians and disproportionately impact marginalised groups. Many authorities have relied heavily on security forces to enforce restrictions, putting security actors in high-stress, close-contact situations with civilians, for which most lack adequate gender and de-escalation training. We know that economic frustrations triggered by the pandemic can fuel perceptions of injustice, inflame tensions in communities or increase competition for access to resources, which may increase violent activity.
Covid-19 is also likely to undermine women’s economic security and girls’ education. The pandemic is significantly disrupting many majority-female market sectors in fragile countries, such as domestic services, hospitality and petty trading in marketplaces. This threatens women’s economic security in the longer term, especially if women recover financially more slowly than men, as happened following the Ebola-related disruption in west Africa. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past. Restrictions on markets and border crossings interrupt informal trading, which is frequently women’s only path to financial independence. UNODC has warned that the crisis is creating the environment where women and girls are more at risk to trafficking. We know that temporary school closures disproportionately impact girls’ education and that girls are far less likely to return to school after income cuts leave their families unable to afford schooling for all their children.
All these impacts will have a much greater effect on conflict-afflicted and fragile states. I very much welcome the announcements to which the Minister referred and I appeal to the Government to ensure that a focus on peacebuilding is a continuous thread through all the programmes that she described.
My Lords, this is an important and necessary debate on the day that the World Health Assembly is holding its annual meeting. Here are some observations and questions, which I hope the Minister will be able to cover in her reply.
First, no one should try to argue that the international community and multilateral organisations have so far put in a stellar performance during this crisis. There have been gaps in the international response, slowness in reacting and failures. These are lessons to be learned and applied when the next pandemic comes along, as it will.
Secondly, neither denial, as in the early stages in China, or as in the US, Brazil and Russia, which has proved pretty disastrous, nor scapegoating, as with the US freezing of its contributions to the WHO, has done other than make a bad situation worse. That US action was deplorable. Are the Government standing by the WHO and joining with others to repair the damage?
Thirdly, it makes no sense to blame multilateral organisations—the UN, the WHO and the EU—for not exercising powers that their members have not been prepared to give them.
Fourthly, on health aspects of the crisis, do the Government agree that the research into vaccines and into antibody and other tests should, as a matter of principle, be open-sourced and available to researchers worldwide?
Fifthly, do the Government agree that, once developed, these remedies should be patent-free and that a major effort should be made to boost availability to the poorer countries?
Sixthly, do the Government see merit in the idea that all Governments should accept a legal obligation to stock PPE equipment, modelled loosely on the response to the 1973 oil crisis?
Seventhly, on the economic and financial consequences of the pandemic, do the Government accept that not only debt postponement but debt write-off will be needed for developing countries and do they support the unlocking of special drawing rights that are being unused?
Finally, do the Government agree that the highest priority needs to be given to keeping open world trade under the rules-based system of the WTO? A protectionist response, which in the 1930s turned a financial crisis into a world slump with disastrous political consequences, is an avoidable catastrophe.
My Lords, noble Lords have focused on one aspect of the present crisis after another and, quite properly, fears have been expressed about how the poorest countries in the world will cope with the outbreak of Covid-19. How will the untold numbers in refugee camps, drought-affected and locust-ravaged Africa or war-torn nations cope?
I welcome the Minister’s reference to the Government’s commitment to a future strategy, but that of course begs the question: how do we build back better? In the Labour Party I keep hearing the words, “We must see this as another Beveridge moment”. Who could disagree? However, it also has to be another Bretton Woods moment, another United Nations, with all its agencies, moment, another Marshall plan moment and—forgive me—another Christian Aid moment. We must adamantly refuse to allow the resumption of things as they were. This has to be a moment when we overhaul and recalibrate all these systems and institutions and make them fit for the purpose of building a world order where injustice and poverty, ignorance and idleness, and squalor and disease are overcome for all peoples.
The first Beveridge moment did not occur by magic in the summer of 1945; its recommendations had been worked at seriously for a number of years. The Labour Party secured a three-day debate in our own Chamber in March 1943, in the very midst of the war. This ensured that commitments were made that gave the implementation of the report a flying start. As then, so now. We must cope with and respond to needs and trends as we find them, but we must not take our eye off the ball. The future awaits us and our best efforts to shape it creatively and for the common good must go on right now. The Beveridge report dealt with our domestic agenda. The new Beveridge moment must envisage nothing short of the common good and the survival of the planet.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register. I thank the Minister for her positive summary of the UK’s leading role, but so far the incidence of Covid-19 in many developing countries has been surprisingly low. Is that because weak systems lead to significant underreporting, or are the academics in those countries behind the curve, or are there other factors in play?
What specific measures, from the Government’s point of view, are in place to support health systems in confronting the virus, and what additional measures have been planned to optimise the community engagement that is so essential? Can the established vaccine programmes continue, because they are also essential, and can we be assured that maintaining or increasing support for tackling Covid-19 will not divert funding from other development measures? As DfID’s budget comes under pressure, as it will, can the Minister assure us that any cuts to programmes will not be made at the expense of sustaining health systems or programmes which are central to health and well-being?
What steps are being taken by DfID to support the expertise that exists within its delivery partners, both NGOs and specialist contractors? Many of them were involved in tackling the Ebola outbreaks and they therefore have valuable experience. Will DfID allow greater flexibility and lighter reporting to facilitate rapid changes on the ground, as have been asked for?
The Minister mentioned good hygiene and hand- washing, which are both central to the fight against Covid-19. What specific measures are the Government supporting to improve access to clean water and sanitation? While I welcome the campaign with Unilever and the extra funding for the UN Refugee Agency, are other measures being considered to accelerate access to clean water and sanitation?
The Minister is also the champion for girls’ education and I welcome her leading role in that. How can we ensure that girls do not suffer further discrimination in education in relation to both health and hygiene measures being taken in the interests of girls in the school situation? Are those being protected and promoted?
My Lords, it is clear that in tackling a global pandemic, we need a global response. However, I want to raise a different international issue that is a little nearer to home and a little narrower, because nowhere do we see the international dimension more clearly than in our own National Health Service. Some 28% of our medical staff and 13% of all NHS workers come from other countries. Many of them are from black and minority ethnic groups, so they are particularly vulnerable, more so than many others. Yet they do such a wonderful job that every Thursday evening we come out and clap for them. Given that, it might be thought that we treat them well, but I fear that that is not entirely the case.
The Royal College of Physicians tells us that not only do people from abroad have to pay the punitive costs of visas, which might be expected, they also have to pay a £400 a year immigration health surcharge for each family member to help pay towards the costs of the National Health Service. They are being asked to pay for the healthcare that they themselves are providing for us, and that health surcharge is shortly to rise to £624 a year. This is a ludicrous situation where up to a quarter of our doctors are being asked to pay for the care that they are giving to the rest of us. I ask the Minister to press her colleagues in the Department for Health and Social Care to rescind this tax which these incredibly valuable staff are being asked to pay.
My Lords, never in the field of human suffering has the incompetence of a few caused the death of so many in our country. There must be a public inquiry into the Government’s handling of Covid-19. In terms of deaths per head of population, the UK response has been the worst in the world. What countries like South Korea and Taiwan did but the UK singularly failed to do was to introduce at the outset of the pandemic a system of testing, tracking and contact tracing combined with isolation. If flights from China has been restricted from the beginning and foreign nationals either repatriated or quarantined, most of our current woes could have been avoided.
Too much of the Government’s so-called independent scientific advice, including advice from SAGE, has been politicised. That is why action was not taken sooner. This is also yet another cost of Brexit because during the early months of this year the Government were overly obsessed with Brexit issues following last December’s general election when they should have been preparing for the coronavirus outbreak. The failure to control our borders, to ban mass gatherings and to develop an adequate testing and tracking system, along with our unpreparedness with PPE, has been a national disgrace. Our care homes have ended up bearing the brunt. The Minister and the Government owe the country and your Lordships’ House an apology.
My Lords, the international response to this virus which, like Asian flu, SARS and H7N9, originated in China, has been feeble and kow-towing to China. I understand that the UK Government will now support the Australian motion calling for an independent inquiry, but it does not mention China. That is like having an inquiry into the Second World War and not mentioning Nazi Germany, which had a little something to do with it, I suggest.
I hope the Minister will confirm that we will demand why the WHO and Tedros Ghebreyesus acted like the propaganda mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, clearing China of all blame. We know that the outbreak originated in China, that it was covered up by China, that China destroyed the initial samples and that the regime has disappeared any doctors who spoke out. China has lied, lied and lied again about Covid-19 and, when this is over, there has to be a fundamental shift in working relationships with the country.
The best description of China I have seen recently appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Times. Mr. Rod Liddle wrote that China’s
“tyrannical state capitalist government … with its lack of accountability and openness, with its brutality and complete absence of independent viewpoints, contributed to the virus’s spread. … But Covid-19 is only … a small indicator of China’s flaws. This is a country in which thousands … of Chinese Muslims are held in concentration camps … A country that continues to occupy Tibet, that menaces Taiwan, that loathes and harasses the dwindling democracy of Hong Kong, that affords no freedom of speech to its citizens and that bullies its neighbours in southeast Asia with its overweening territorial claims.”
He continued that China
“has managed to combine the most brutal aspects of communism with the most brutal aspects of capitalism. … We have become too reliant upon this country and are thus scared to raise our voices.”
“China is not quite the nastiest country in the world, but it is undoubtedly one of them. We should not be afraid to say as much.”
I wholeheartedly agree.
My Lords, this week, the World Health Assembly is meeting in Geneva. This should be an ideal and invaluable opportunity to exchange ideas on best practice and experiences of coping with the Covid-19 pandemic. One would have thought that, in this of all years, the WHA would wish to hear from those who have done best in tackling the crisis. By any objective analysis, Taiwan—I declare my interest as our Government’s trade envoy—has done exceptionally well. As soon as confirmation of the new virus was received on 31 December, Taiwan began implementing quarantine of direct flights from Wuhan. On 2 January, it established a response team for the disease, based on test, trace and isolate. Yesterday was the 10th successive day that Taiwan reported no new Covid-19 cases, keeping the number of those infected at 440. The number of deaths from the virus, in a country of 23 million people, is reported as just seven.
Despite this outstanding record, the WHO refuses to issue an invitation to Taiwan to take part in this year’s assembly. It is disregarding the right to health of 23 million Taiwanese people and ignoring the huge assistance being provided internationally, including the provision of 50 million masks and other medical supplies to countries all around the world, including Africa and the Middle East, and assistance to medics working with Syrian refugees. One million of these masks came from Taiwan to the UK.
Therefore, I hope the Minister will endorse what her noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said in the House on 10 February:
“we continue to support representations that the Department of Health has made directly in lobbying for Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization. We are also working with like-minded countries, including the United States and Australia, to ensure that, at the World Health Assembly which takes place in May this year, Taiwan is represented.”—[Official Report, 10/2/20; col. 2072.]
I hope that she can confirm that that is still the Government’s position.
My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. If we believe historians, this pandemic is not a blip but a regular feature of the human story. So, while we struggle to find immediate solutions, we cannot disregard the longer-term effects of this pandemic. Permanent changes to how we live will have to be made to make us less vulnerable in the future.
It might be right to criticise the Chinese response, but the challenge is for world leaders to step up to the plate to provide an equitable way of supporting each other across the globe. Interestingly, at the 4 May EU/UK-hosted world summit on responding to the pandemic, it was the Chinese representative who said:
“In fighting the virus, confidence and solidarity are much more valuable than gold.”
In the last 10 years, we have seen protectionism rise and talk of borders, tariffs and “us first” policies abound. There is the challenge. The Government have to make the case for co-operation globally and this pandemic is forcing countries to do just that. The WHO says that it will take a four to five-year timeframe to control this virus; a vaccine may control it, but it will take much longer to eliminate the disease.
Russia, India and the USA were missing from the table at the EU/UK summit. Political leadership is critical to success, so can the Minister tell us what steps the UK Government are taking to, in Theresa May’s words,
“ensure the effectiveness of a system of co-operation through shared institutions”?
Does the Minister agree that the WHO needs to be a financially strengthened and independent organisation, not frustrated by weakness? This country’s extensive overseas aid budget gives us strong diplomatic muscle, to build political bridges to make things work. We have to fight national self-isolation if we want a secure future, both for ourselves and the rest of the world.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for initiating this debate. I am pleased to take part, not just as one of her predecessors at DfID but as co-chair of the All-Party Group on Ageing and Older People and as former chair of Age Scotland. I want to deal with those over 60 who are facing the highest risk of severe illness and death from this virus, particularly those with chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. As my friends at Age International say in their excellent briefing, older people are often excluded by international development bodies, yet they estimate that, among displaced people—who are some of those at greatest risk—30% are older people.
We know already that older men and women face barriers to accessing healthcare. We have heard of older people being turned away because, “You’re not ill, you’re just old”. Age International gives examples of that in the Philippines. The UK Government need to ensure that their response to Covid-19 in the countries that we support are inclusive of older women and men, to ensure that no one is left behind. Pensions are a crucial form of social protection but, in low-income countries, only around 20% of older people get a pension. One good example, however, is the support that DfID has given to Uganda to pilot a senior citizens’ grant, giving a cash transfer to 180,000 older people. I hope that the Minister will say that this can be replicated elsewhere.
Will the Minister ensure that the needs of older people are taken account of in our assistance? Specifically, will she ensure that all our country-based staff are trained to take account of the needs of older people facing this unprecedented pandemic? Finally, if an independent inquiry into the global response to this pandemic is agreed to, as I hope it will be, will she take action to ensure that these and other similar challenges facing older people are taken into account when we consider the lessons learned?
My Lords, in welcoming the Minister’s opening remarks, perhaps I might pursue some issues about which I have written to her, particularly about people facing Covid-19 without safety nets—in war zones, shanty towns, slums or refugee camps, or as one of an already persecuted minority. What is the international community saying about the stigmatisation and violence directed at Muslim minorities in India, who are blamed for the spread of the virus, or Christian and Hindu minorities in Pakistan, who are denied access to food packages?
In Nigeria, under the cover of Covid, terror groups such as Boko Haram have intensified the frequency of attacks. Are we getting help to victims, seeking to end the violence, and seeking to bring perpetrators to justice? In the many places without safety nets, what is our assessment of the likely impact of the inevitable world recession and hunger following Covid, and the reversal of development gains?
What of China, which has been increasing Africa’s indebtedness and dependency? With African countries accounting for more than a quarter of United Nations member states, this dependency and indebtedness has serious consequences for the conduct of international relations. It has emboldened China in resisting calls for an independent international inquiry into the causes of Covid-19 and into the role of the World Health Organization, as we have heard from many preceding speakers. What is the Government’s assessment of the extent of the WHO’s complicity with the Chinese regime, the extent of the Chinese regime’s influence over the WHO, and the prospects for reform of the WHO?
With 120 countries, including the UK, today at the assembly renewing the call for an independent inquiry, can the Minister tell us how the international community intends to take forward that proposal, establishing the genesis of a virus which is claiming hundreds of thousands of lives all over the world and doing incalculable damage to fragile societies and economies, and societies without any kind of safety net?
My Lords, in the short time available I will confine my remarks to Africa; in particular to how African Governments, and international institutions with bases in Africa, are responding to Covid-19.
As the RESULTS organisation points out, Covid-19 is not only exacerbating poverty and health inequalities all over the world but is making it very difficult for agencies such as DfID to operate. C-19 will also have long-term economic consequences, ravaging the poorest countries and shrinking the availability of official development assistance. How are the Government facing up to this particular challenge?
The World Health Organization has warned that, without action from African Governments, there could be 10 million infections on the continent within six months. The Covid pandemic could smoulder on in Africa for years, killing as many as 190,000 people in the next 12 months. Governments need to test, trace, isolate and treat. What targeted assistance is the UK providing in this regard?
Most counties have imposed lockdowns, which have slowed down the rate of infection. South Africa has eased its restrictions, allowing around 1 million people to return to work. Rwanda, Mauritius and the DRC have all lifted some restrictions. African countries are doing a lot, according to the director of the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa. Because of measures taken by Governments and communities, transmission rates are lower than seen elsewhere.
Responses, however, have varied greatly. Experience of previous pandemics such as Ebola has spurred action, with schools, borders and airports closed even before many cases were registered. Yet Africa has tested only 685 people per million, a far lower rate than in many other parts of the world. Dr John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said that African states are not testing enough. He is quoted as saying: “This is a very treacherous and dangerous virus. We cannot be complacent.” Are the Government co-ordinating any global action to address this particular risk?
My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. I thank all the organisations that have been in touch with me with the most helpful briefings. I also thank the Minister for her statement today.
I am pleased to see where the money spent by DfID is going now, but is the Minister able to give us an undertaking that the 0.7% will be protected as we go through this pandemic? The money from DfID is vital for the organisations that represent us and work with us on the front line. We do not want them to have to close and, as my noble friend Lady Jay mentioned, some have got only six months, or a bit longer. We really need these organisations to continue to work on the front line, around the world.
I am also concerned about the continuing wars in Syria, Afghanistan and the Congo, and in other places where women are bearing the brunt of this. No real peace talks are going on. Is there a way that we can put pressure, through our meetings with the G7 and the G20, to get some form of ceasefire? We will continue to see more refugees. As we know, the refugee figures just now are very high and the projected figures are so high that they are too unbelievable even to be quoted. It is important that we try our utmost to get some form of ceasefire and sunset clauses. In Afghanistan, where we are providing support, we saw babies murdered by bombing in the hospitals.
It is important that, in our ways of trying to deal with the pandemic, we try to support the refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees made it clear that global solidarity is essential in our response to the economic impact of this virus. I look on our Government to accept some more refugees as we limit this virus with testing, and to encourage other countries. The way that the refugee camps are going, there is no way that families can protect themselves or their individuals. We know what it is like just in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh—I have no more time, sorry.
My Lords, I want to draw attention to the impact of Covid-19 on the British Council and, by extension, on the UK’s international influence and reputation. I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages, which is supported by the British Council.
The Government’s review last year described the British Council as fulfilling
“an important and unique role”
“a world leader in its field.”
It operates in over 100 countries and employs 12,000 staff worldwide, 1,200 of them in the UK. Eighty-five per cent of its income comes from teaching and examining English, generating export earnings of £125 million a year for UK exam bodies. But the pandemic has forced 90% of its overseas teaching centres to close, shutting down its ability to generate revenue.
The range of activities and the depth of value to the UK’s global standing and soft power goes far wider than teaching English. It includes skills training for a digital future, combating gender-based violence and programmes that directly benefit UK schools, such as Connecting Classrooms, run jointly with DfID, and the language assistants scheme. All this could be at risk if the council were to fold.
I know that the FCO has already provided some extra funding and that the British Council aims to furlough around a quarter of its UK staff, but this does not come close to putting the council in a financially sustainable position post Covid. Further support is essential before the end of May to ensure that the organisation has a future. If ever there was a case for a government bailout based on enlightened self-interest, it is this. Will the Minister hold urgent talks with colleagues across government to secure the emergency funds to guarantee a future for this important and unique body?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for initiating this debate. Like other noble Lords today, I would like to concentrate on human rights violations during this period of the pandemic, but also on how certain undemocratic countries are using the pandemic and their lockdowns as a means of suppression.
In countries such as Guatemala, Myanmar, Uganda and the Philippines, authoritarian leaders have been using that means of suppression to keep people in subjection, rather than tackling the real issue of the pandemic or injustices and inequalities, and the high levels of poverty entrenched as a result of it. In fact, a UN rapporteur said:
“The danger is that states, particularly non-democratic or less open societies, would use the opportunity given by the health emergency to crack down on particular minority groups, or individuals or groups that they see as … problematic”.
I therefore ask the Minister to ensure that, through the organs used by the Government, such as the G7 and the G20, all influence is brought to bear on these countries violating human rights and putting people in suppression. Will they warn them that there could be judicial sanctions for a failure to show proper human rights respect for all people, and ensure that they are properly cared for and treated, while having proper access to food and clean water? There are some doubts about that as well.
My Lords, in my brief two minutes I will look at the situation in some countries abroad and the impact of the lockdown, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. We have heard about China from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord Blencathra. It appears that the virus started in November last year—but, of course, nobody knows at all. Totalitarian regimes such as China, Russia and Iran do not let us know what is actually happening there. There is a lot of fake news and a lack of knowledge. I am afraid that—as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, pointed out—with deficient medical services we do not know what is happening in Africa either.
Will the lockdown prove to have been futile? Without a vaccine, will the virus resurge? Nobody knows who has had it. I know so many people who think they have had the virus. We heard an interesting example from the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso. I have another example, among many others. An overweight 60 year-old friend went into hospital for kidney stones. He was tested, as everybody was, and was told he had the virus without any symptoms. The testing is not entirely reliable anyway.
According to the figures, perhaps 316,000 deaths around the world so far have been linked to CV-19. This is awful—every one is tragic—but it is not callous to point out that some 60 million people will die anyway around the world this year. I suggest that the lockdown, both nationally and internationally, may prove much more damaging in terms of poverty, civil rights—as we have just heard—and death than just taking sensible precautions. We seem to have suspended our critical faculties. We should all remember the consequences of the great depression 90 years ago.
My Lords, the Minister’s significant opening speech demonstrated the indispensability of a vigorous, independent DfID with a really strong Minister at its head. We have debated global interdependence and Covid-19’s underlining of this. It is surely important that we all demonstrate our support for what I understand is the Minister’s position: we must have strong, effective international institutions to meet the challenge and fulfil our role as a global Britain. I am totally convinced that our history will depend on that. History will judge us harshly. Have we been committed, effective players in the world situation?
We have also talked about a vaccine, but what is important is that a vaccine is available at a price that can be afforded by those most in need and is accessible, with effective means of distribution. It would be helpful if the Minister could say in a little more detail what these practical arrangements are.
We need a holistic approach to the whole issue of interdependence and Covid-19: poverty, malnutrition, food insecurity, displaced people, conflict, the arms trade, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and all the implications for the vulnerable. We also have to remember the position of the frail, the handicapped, the elderly, children, women and widows. Underlying all this, we must strengthen our commitment—not weaken it now— to the human rights of everybody in the way we treat them.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests. As we have heard, the current meeting of the World Health Assembly is focusing on strengthening global co-ordination against the Covid-19 pandemic. It cannot do so, however, without real openness and honesty about how the pandemic originated and has spread and what all countries are learning about how it may be countered. The claim by China that it has always acted in an open, transparent and responsible manner is contradicted by the apology that had to be made to Dr Li Wenliang and his colleagues, who were reprimanded last December for warning people about the threat.
We now need fully transparent, independent and expert scrutiny to examine the approaches being taken in different countries, including our own. There needs to be a halt to any attempts to coerce any country into dropping demands for knowledge to help the war against the virus. Truth may be the first casualty of war, but allowing it to be a casualty now will have catastrophic consequences. We need all the expertise that there is in the world to fight a threat on a scale that is without precedent.
That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, said, it is so wrong to exclude Taiwan from the deliberations of the World Health Assembly. Given its proximity and ties to mainland China, it is remarkable that Taiwan has kept its number of cases so low. Our Government are now confusingly telling people to be alert, but Taiwan was alert to the problem on 31 December, when it expressed concerns to the World Health Organization about the virus’s potential for human-to-human transmission. It received no reply. Instead, the WHO endorsed China’s denial of human-to-human transmission until 21 January. Anything less than full transparency by all Governments now will waste precious time again and cost many more lives.
My Lords, this week Christian Aid has a harsh message for all of us. It says Covid-19
“threatens to push the world’s poorest to the brink of survival.”
The poorest, it says, are already at the tipping point and the virus is pushing them over. To some extent, we are seeing this in our own communities, where people are short of food and the effects of lockdown are taking their toll. But people living in Gaza or South Sudan or in a refugee camp in Bangladesh really are living on the margin. Without adequate health facilities, their lives can become intolerable.
The International Development Committee—the IDC—took evidence last week from the ICRC, UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee, all international agencies working on the front line in countries such as Syria and Yemen. They say that the two biggest problems are access and funding. Some countries are still denying access to people in most need because of conflict; others refuse to allow the most highly trained health workers into remote or sensitive areas such as refugee camps. Can the Minister confirm that DfID and the FCO are pressing for access in those sensitive areas?
Funding is already a problem for regular health services and campaigns such as the malaria campaign, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, and with the virus it has become much more urgent. We know that DfID is a world leader in aid delivery, but can the Minister confirm that, as the IRC is saying, the NGOs active in this crisis should be receiving more funding to ensure that help reaches the most vulnerable? Local NGOs are often best placed to enable and train local health workers in their own communities and to spread information on best practice during an epidemic.
I welcome the Government’s initiative to suspend debt service payments and I hope they can do more to sustain the recovery in the LDCs. I also note that they will address problems of domestic violence and gender equality, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said earlier.
My Lords, Covid-19 has now spread to every continent in the world, besides Antarctica. With the number of reported global cases rising to more than 4.7 million, including 244,000 here in the UK, almost the entirety of the world’s population will be affected in one way or another.
Out of all those at risk, some of the most vulnerable people who are suffering and losing out due to the virus are the 736 million globally deemed to live in extreme poverty, 100 million of whom are estimated to fall into extreme poverty due to healthcare costs. It is also estimated that over half of the 736 million have no access to healthcare.
For those in particular, the current healthcare crisis will be especially terrifying, as they will fear not being able to afford any treatment if infected. For this reason, it is essential that any potential vaccine for Covid-19 is made universally available. This is important, as we cannot have a situation where Covid-19 is eliminated in only the wealthier demographics, with the poorest being priced out. This is not sustainable in such an interconnected world.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, said in her introduction, we are all in this together and will only succeed together. She is right. It is therefore crucial that the UK leads by example and uses its global influence to ensure that the vaccine will be made universally available internationally, especially to the most vulnerable. It is important that the UK continues to promote its values of internationalism and ensures that our global friends uphold their collective international responsibilities during this pandemic.
The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, is not here, so I will now call the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall.
My Lords, John Maynard Keynes is known properly for deficit financing as a way to deal with unemployment, but his main claim to fame in 1944-45 at Bretton Woods was for the global institutions, particularly the financial ones, tying into the UN system of organisations, and, underlying that, co-operation around the world rather than nationalism.
At lunchtime today, I participated in a seminar run in conjunction with the All-Party Group for Africa, which I helped to found. What is striking is how far nearly all the African countries, despite issues of governance and silent voices from Beijing, are all part of strong north-south arrangements across the Mediterranean, which are absolutely necessary. The EU heads of mission in each African country—I have been watching quite a few of them—meet on a regular basis to ensure maximum co-ordination among the donors and the recipients. It would be highly counter- productive if there was a score of different European lines of advice to one or two people in Burundi, who are the only people who can run the administration. That goes right across from Benin, to Gabon and so on.
Britain often takes the chair at these meetings. I was chair of the All-Party Group for Madagascar. Right across, we are the leading member. Britain versus Europe is a ridiculous, scandalous misrepresentation. Some of us will do our damnedest to limit that disaster and try to reverse it. So I was quite taken aback today when Mr Duddridge, the Minister, proclaimed that the EU does not need to play a big role in Africa and that the loss of the UK from the weekly meetings et cetera is almost a step forward rather than a step back.
Finally, it is not a correct binary to think of economic growth versus reduction of health risks. They largely go together.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on introducing this debate. I want to focus on two aspects. First, I co-chair the All-Party Water Group. I was particularly interested in my noble friend’s reference to DfID’s joint funding with Unilever of sanitation, hygiene and water resources. Will she assure us that the UK and other nations will look to work more closely with multinational companies, particularly those such as Nestlé. Along with other colleagues from both Houses, I had the privilege a number of years ago to visit the important work that it is doing in Africa—in South Africa, in particular—through EcoLink. This virus will thrive without proper sanitation. A proper supply of water, particularly hot water, to developing countries is especially important in this regard.
I urge my noble friend through her international counterparts, in particular at the summit that we will chair on 4 June, to make sure that we understand the origins of this virus so that we do not have a similar virus or the same virus in the future. If it is traced to dubious animal markets in China, will she use her good offices to ensure that those markets are closed down and will not give rise to a future virus?
My Lords, the Covid crisis has not just been a health crisis; it has also been an economic crisis. While we should tackle the health pandemic soon enough, which may last all of six months, the economic crisis will last much longer. There are many groups of people in countries who have not been affected by the virus, but they have suffered the collateral economic damage, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and others have pointed out. While international co-operation is required for dealing with the health pandemic, it is much more important that we tackle the economic collateral damage being inflicted on the most vulnerable. Such people are not typically salaried or in white-collar jobs or jobs which can be done from home. They are suffering severe loss of income and, very often, the welfare state, such as the universal credit system, treats them extremely unkindly. We have to face up to the fact that, for the next 18 months, no economy will recover; certainly, ours will not. Whatever international co-operation may achieve from country to country, we have to see who is helping the poorest people in them. For example, are we going to resume refugee traffic? Are we going to help asylum seekers? Are we going to help those who have been temporarily unemployed because of the economic crisis and who barely qualify for universal credit?
It is these questions that we must study. We should start international co-operation on that subject.
My Lords, G20 leaders made a statement on Covid-19 after a virtual summit on 26 March 2020. It said:
“The G20 is committed to do whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic, along with the … WHO … and other international organizations, working within their existing mandates. We are determined to spare no effort, both individually and collectively”.
Furthermore, it says:
“We fully support and commit to further strengthen the WHO’s mandate in coordinating the international fight against the pandemic”,
“We will quickly work together and with stakeholders to close the financing gap in the WHO Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan. We further commit to provide immediate resources to the WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund”.
As we all know, the United States is a key member of the G20 and the largest funder of the WHO. It funded $400 million for the WHO in 2019 alone. However, on 15 April 2020, in the midst of the crisis, the US President, Donald Trump, announced:
“I am directing my administration to halt funding while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”
In his view, the WHO failed in its basic duty in its response to the coronavirus outbreak.
In the light of the US President’s announcement, what assessment have the Government made of the impact that this will have on the international fight against Covid-19, and what efforts have been made to meet the shortfall caused by the US’s withdrawal of funds to the WHO?
My Lords, the international health crisis has had a dramatic impact on international trade, with steep falls in trade volumes, significant interruptions to supply chains and a proliferation of trade restrictions. The CBI, of which I am vice-president, has identified multiple areas in the short, medium and long term where business and government can work together to ensure that trade helps to restart, revive and renew the UK economy.
It is clear that the impact has been terrible. In April, the WTO said that world trade,
“is set to plummet by between 13 and 32% in 2020”.
The CBI’s latest quarterly Industrial Trends Survey says that export sentiment has plunged at the fastest pace since the start of the series in 1961. Forty-nine per cent of manufacturers report shipping delays for raw materials and 44% report shortages of raw materials and imports. As of April, around 76 countries have imposed 106 export restrictions on medical supplies, medical equipment and medicine, according to Global Trade Alert. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are working on these blockages?
The global community is struggling to find a single voice, with some exceptions. On the plus side, G20 Ministers agreed in March that emergency measures must be
“targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary”.
Central banks are working closely behind the scenes but does the Minister agree that the G20 meeting has been hampered by arguments between the US and China? What about July’s G7 summit? The WTO is already weakened by trade tensions. This is the 75th anniversary of the UN, of which the WHO is a part. Does the Minister think that this is a great opportunity to reform this institution for the better?
With the emerging trends, countries are phasing their approaches and coming back at different speeds. Will our digital efforts with our contact tracing app be compatible with those in Europe and internationally? If we are thinking of quarantine, are we looking ahead? Will there be quarantine-free bubbles for cross-border travel? We keep hearing that there are shortages of PPE in the care sector and the NHS. Can the Minister assure us that there will be adequate supplies of PPE? Looking forward, does she agree that we need a 10-year strategy for UK trade?
I join other noble Lords in welcoming the Government’s embrace of multilateralism in their response to the Covid-19 crisis, when they have too often appeared in other respects enthusiasts for British or even English exceptionalism.
The Government’s significant and early commitment to emergency funding, to be channelled through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations with its commitment to equality of access, was particularly welcome. However, it is wrong to attribute this, as the Secretary of State for the Department for International Development did in her Statement to the House of Commons 12 days ago, to the altruism of the British people. It is not altruism that lies behind investment in the accelerated development of Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics but overwhelming economic and social self-interest. As the Minister said in her opening remarks, the virus does not respect national borders. This investment should not be at the expense of the other international aid programmes financed by DfID, when, as many noble Lords have highlighted this evening, the social and economic needs of low-income countries have already been increased so much and, I fear, will increase even more if Covid-19 explodes in those countries, as the hotspots in Nigeria threaten.
I therefore have three questions for the Minister. First, how much of the £388 million committed by the Government under the coronavirus global response has been, or will be, taken from the international aid budget and the 0.7% of GNI obligation under the International Development Act? Secondly, is the £84 million grant to Oxford and Imperial, announced last week, an addition to the CGR commitment and will it come from outside DfID’s budget? Lastly, in the current year, when the OBR is forecasting a 12.8% fall in GDP which will be reflected in a similar fall in GNI, will the Government not just protect the 0.7% international aid obligation, as my noble friend Lady Goudie has asked, but increase it in percentage terms, at least maintained in absolute terms, without counting any spending under the CGR commitment?
My Lords, I add my thanks to those of other noble Lords to the Minister for initiating this debate. It is indeed crucial that the international dimensions are thoroughly explored when the world is confronted by a crippling disease of global proportions. A disease that knows no borders can be defeated only by a united front of all countries in the world, because no one is safe until everyone is safe.
The breadth of briefings received by me as international development spokesperson from the Liberal Democrat Benches, and other speakers, have reflected four key themes. First is the importance of supporting front-line workers, both to put in place measures to fight Covid-19 and, crucially, to maintain existing programmes to prevent health systems becoming overloaded and unable to serve the most vulnerable who cannot help themselves, including refugees and IDPs. Second is support for the WHO as the world agency best placed to ensure a co-ordinated response and equal access to future vaccines and treatment. Third is the importance of giving Governments a breathing space, with debt relief to strengthen health systems. Last is support for calls for a halt to wars. We have an invisible foe to fight that does not discriminate. We should not fight ourselves.
I start with the importance of supporting front-line NGOs who know their local communities well and are able to rapidly mobilise help to where it is needed, something larger agencies cannot match. It is not a matter of either/or. It is true that the larger UN agencies have unique and important leveraging power to plan logistics and must be equipped to do this. However, where they operate, our UK NGOs have unrivalled knowledge of local structures, and should receive Covid-19-related support commensurate with this level of reach and delivery expertise. It is frustrating beyond belief that these are the very charities battling for survival in the face of falling funding revenue from the public—for obvious reasons—but there is no reason why support from ODA funding should not be forthcoming. A mere £20 million to UK NGOs out of a total of £744 million announced to date to combat Covid-19 is inadequate. The Minister will recall that well over 100 parliamentarians signed a letter from the Lib Dem spokesperson in the Commons to the Secretary of State for DfID, calling for greater funding for UK NGOs. Will the Minister undertake to do all she can to help our highly respected overseas aid charities deliver aid to the poorest communities on the front line of the fight against Covid-19?
It is crucial that the hard work to lay the foundations for delivering the sustainable development goals is not forfeited in misguided decisions to move funding away from the health, education, gender and age equality programmes designed to create more resilient and sustainable economies and societies around the world. As tackling the Ebola crisis showed, preventive healthcare, such as nutrition and immunisation, is particularly at risk during emergencies, first because health services become too stretched to deal with anything non-urgent; and, secondly, because people avoid visiting hospitals and health centres for fear of catching the virus. It is a sad fact that, in the 2019 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than twice as many lives were claimed by the secondary outbreak of measles than by Ebola.
DfID must take steps to ensure that preventive health programmes continue and have safety mechanisms built in to deal with Covid-19 risks, which include ensuring that community health workers have appropriate PPE and are able to implement no-touch techniques, such as using dolls safely to demonstrate to parents how they can screen their children for malnutrition. It must also ensure that the distribution of food, nutrition-related health products and cash is exempt from lockdown restrictions. Is that happening?
Nutrition, immunisation and infectious disease programmes complement one another. Good nutrition is needed to develop a strong immune system and for vaccines to be effective. All three interventions working in tandem lead to better educational outcomes for all, especially girls. Access to education is something that we must heed as this crisis hits harder in the developing world. Sadly, the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth summit, scheduled to take place this year, has now been put back. It was set to follow in the very successful steps of the previous summit, which was hosted by the UK in 2013. Will the Government augment their welcome early commitment to funding for Gavi by doing all they can to push for a virtual Nutrition for Growth summit so that programmes do not risk falling off a cliff edge in 2021? Will DfID play a leadership role and renew its nutrition commitments in 2020?
I shall take this opportunity to highlight the impact of Covid-19 on the efforts to eradicate polio. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has helped to reduce the number of polio cases by more than 99% since its formation in 1988. We are on the cusp of eradicating polio. However, because of Covid-19, most preventive polio immunisation campaigns and outbreak responses in GPEI-supported countries have been suspended. While the GPEI’s focus on halting the spread of the pandemic is welcome, it is crucial that polio eradication efforts restart stronger than ever. They must include strengthened routine immunisation systems so that progress in eradicating this debilitating disease once and for all can continue. A recent Imperial College article states that if as a global community we are able to maintain
“the most critical prevention activities and healthcare services for HIV, TB and malaria”—
I think polio could be safely included in that list—we
“could significantly reduce the overall impact of the COVID-19 pandemic”,
and therefore lessen the scarring long-term social and economic consequences.
A number of noble Lords have mentioned the WHO, which has come under sustained attack by the President of the United States, and yet it is clear that there is general consensus that it is the global body with the necessary grasp of the measures needed to prevent millions of people dying, to help us return to our own social norms and, in time, to start to rebuild our crippled economies. Let us face it: if the WHO did not exist, we would have to invent it. What the world needs now is visionary leadership, to rally global support for the UN’s $6.7 billion global humanitarian response plan for Covid-19, which the UK co-hosted with the EU.
I ask the Minister: will the UK help ratchet up the response by other countries by committing the UK’s fair share early? I am sure the Minister will point to the £744 million announced by the Government to date to tackle Covid-19, but she will be aware that a large part of that is dedicated to research to find a vaccine and treatments through organisations such as CEPI—the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. But I would be really interested to know what proportion of the £744 million has been dedicated to providing front-line help to the poorest people in the world.
The majority of Covid-19 research and development is publicly funded and, in fact, large amounts of ODA money are being used to finance research. Will the Government give categorical guarantees that UK taxpayers’ money will not fund private profits, and that any treatments and vaccines developed will be accessible and affordable to the NHS as well as to patients in low and middle-income countries? Although it is very welcome that the UK has committed to the WHO’s access to Covid-19 tools accelerator, with its core aim of ensuring equitable global access to vaccines, treatments and tests, the Government still have not set out their plan for how equitable access will be achieved. When will they do so? The idea of a global pool to co-ordinate access and information sharing has already been supported by bodies including the WHO and the European Union, but so far our Government have been silent on the proposal. Will the UK Government move beyond rhetoric on equitable access and look to impose legally binding public-interest conditions on all UK funding committed to developing vaccines and treatments for Covid-19?
With the OBR predicting a large decline in UK GDP this year, there will be a commensurate reduction in the availability of ODA, which is pegged at 0.7% of GNI. Other government departments are spending an increasing amount of ODA on programmes that are not directly delivering relief to the poorest in the world, so does the Minister agree that this position is no longer tenable in the time of Covid and that all effort must be made to rid the planet of Covid-19 as quickly as possible, if only to keep ourselves safe? The diminishing amounts of ODA should be under the sole aegis of DfID, the department best placed to deliver the best value for money for core programmes. The longer it takes to rid ourselves of the virus, the greater the risk that it will mutate into a form that will come back to bite us all even harder. Time to eradicate it is critical.
I finish by asking the Government what they are doing to support the call by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope and the Secretary-General of the UN for a global ceasefire, so that we can give peace a chance and unite in defeating this threat to every country in the world. We desperately need to turn our attention once again to the threat of runaway climate change, which threatens our way of life more permanently.
My Lords, my thanks, like those of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, go to all those workers—in the United Kingdom and across the world—who are on the front line during this pandemic.
While the priority must be to tackle the health emergency caused by Covid-19, our short-term response needs to be global and to anticipate the longer-term consequences around the world. Global health efforts to achieve the SDGs and other health targets on, for example, HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria have been shaken by the Covid-19 pandemic, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, warned. For pandemic responses to be effective, they must place communities and civil society at the centre, uphold and promote human rights, and, as the Minister said, seek to put the furthest behind first.
I welcome the United Kingdom being at the forefront of the search for a vaccine and the development of effective Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, but steps must be taken to ensure that the NHS and patients worldwide can benefit. In Oral Questions this afternoon, the Minister reiterated the UK’s commitment to the WHO access to Covid-19 tools accelerator. Last week, I met the UNITAID executive director, who explained how it had rapidly leveraged its expertise and portfolio and joined the accelerator. It is really important that we continue these global efforts.
As we have heard, the majority of Covid research and development is publicly funded. However, the Government have not set out their plans on how equitable access will be achieved. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked, will the Government go beyond the rhetoric on equitable access and examine legally binding public-interest conditions on all UK funding? What assessment has the UK has made of the Costa Rican proposal for the WHO to create a global pool of rights in technologies for the detection, prevention, control and treatment of Covid-19?
The UK’s Gavi pledge and its call on others to do likewise at the Global Vaccine Summit on 4 June is welcome, but, as the Minister reminded us, challenges remain. Global immunisation rates are stalling, and 19.4 million children—78% of whom live in Gavi-supported countries—still miss out on basic vaccines. How will the Government work with Gavi to ensure that its next strategic period includes efforts to improve access to affordable vaccines and ensure sustainable transition from Gavi support?
We know that good nutrition is needed for vaccines to be effective. The Global Nutrition Report published last week against the backdrop of Covid-19 highlighted that progress on nutrition is too slow. For many, the threat of hunger and malnutrition is far greater than the virus itself. The executive director of the World Food Programme recently told the Security Council that Covid-19 would cause a famine of “biblical proportions”. Wendy Morton told the Commons that every percentage point contraction in global GDP from Covid-19 will lead to an additional 4 million stunted children. Anne-Marie Trevelyan said last week that the UK continued to work closely with Japan to ensure that the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit secures new commitments to nutrition. Does the Minister agree that to pledge early will encourage others to do likewise?
As the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, said, Imperial College recently reported that if, as a global community, we are able to maintain
“the most critical prevention activities and healthcare services for HIV”
and TB, we can minimise the impact of the Covid epidemic. What assessment have the Government made of the impact on the HIV response of Covid-19 and the international Covid-19 response? For example, what steps are the Government taking to protect marginalised and criminalised populations at this time of heightened risk?
At the end of 2018, 70.8 million people had been forcibly displaced from their homes by violence, conflict and persecution—a number that likely increased in 2019. Covid cases being reported last week in areas such as Cox’s Bazar are a warning. NGOs there are working hard to increase access to handwashing and hygiene kits in really incredible circumstances.
What has DfID done at this week’s World Health Assembly to put WASH, in particular, at the centre of the global response to and investment in Covid-19? A global network of community-based responses that respond to and reflect local needs is our best chance of ensuring that men, women, boys and girls in vulnerable settings are able to access the information, services and assistance they need.
My noble friend Lord McConnell made the point very strongly about education in the global response. The UK has committed £5 million to the Education Cannot Wait fund, but at present, only DfID and the LEGO Foundation have made pledges to ECW in response to Covid-19. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage other donors and Governments to make further financial commitments to Education Cannot Wait?
The UN Secretary-General has recognised the impact of Covid-19 on older persons by stressing that they have the same rights to life and health as everyone else. The UK signed a statement of support for his policy briefing on older people. Can the Minister tell us how the UK is putting this commitment into action?
Finally, the UK must lead the global efforts for debt relief and supporting ceasefire initiatives. Can the Minister explain how the Government are encouraging international institutions to do this, and particularly, as a member of the P5, how is the United Kingdom supporting the UN Security Council’s global ceasefire resolution?
The IMF and the G20 have taken important steps on debt relief. However, 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 2020 to December 2020. Is the UK exploring legislative options to protect countries from being burdened by private debt?
As this debate has highlighted, coronavirus is not only a health emergency but an economic and social one. As I have mentioned, we have already seen large-scale food insecurity, increases in deaths due to other health problems such as HIV and malaria, and clampdowns on human rights. Is the Minister satisfied that DfID has properly assessed the risks of “pivoting resources towards Covid-19”, as the Secretary of State put it, as a failure to do so risks a spike in other serious health, social and economic emergencies?
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate this evening on the biggest international challenge we have faced in our lifetimes. We are seeing the devastating impact of this killer at home and overseas, and of course, the secondary impacts of Covid-19. We have touched on many aspects this evening—economies, education, livelihoods, food systems, and gender and social inclusion issues—which will be felt for some time to come. As is so often the case, the poorest will be disproportionately affected. It a global problem that needs a global solution.
The debate has also underscored the crucial importance of a strong and co-ordinated international response, and it is in our best interests, and in our nature as an outward-looking nation, to be at the forefront of this. The international impact and the UK’s response are wide-ranging, and this debate has touched on a broad range of these vital issues. I will attempt to address as many points as I am able to in the time allowed, but if I miss any, I will follow up in writing. Many good points have been raised this evening.
The noble Lords, Lord McConnell, Lord Hain and Lord Monks, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, spoke of the importance of a co-ordinated response. We are working to ensure that the international response to Covid-19 through the G7 and the G20 responds to the needs of the most vulnerable countries. We are working through the G7 and G20 to deliver an ambitious response and are playing a leading role in supporting G7 Foreign Ministers and the Foreign Secretary, who are committed to driving forward a co-ordinated global health response, to build the resilience of vulnerable countries.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, mentioned, the development of a vaccine will be crucial to stopping the global spread of the virus. We are working with G20 Governments to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible and make it available to anyone who needs it. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, asked how we are supporting the global recovery. As co-chair of the G20 framework working group, we are leading the development of a wide-ranging G20 action plan, which covers health, economic and financial response, the foundations to secure an environmentally sustainable and inclusive recovery and support for vulnerable countries in lessons for the future. Through this action plan, we are calling on international organisations to support countries to deliver international financial and health system assistance and prioritise resources towards those vulnerable countries.
As the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, highlighted, Covid-19 is a full-spectrum threat to achieving the SDGs. But during our G7 presidency next year, we will continue to press the development priorities and to co-ordinate a strong global response.
My noble friend Lord Lucas, the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Durham, and the noble Lords, Lord St John of Bletso, Lord Hannay and Lord Bilimoria, all spoke about the importance of international trade. This crisis highlights just how important it is to keep trade flowing and to keep supply chains open, so that we can all have the essential supplies that we need at this difficult time. Free trade and resilient supply chains through open markets will be crucial to the global economic recovery as the crisis passes. In the extraordinary meeting of G20 Trade Ministers on 30 March, the International Trade Secretary called for major world economies to work together to tackle the economic impact of coronavirus. In times of economic difficulty, it is more important than ever for countries to remain open to trade.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Hussain, spoke about the World Health Organization, which of course has a vital role to play in co-ordinating the global response. We must continue to support the WHO and the wider UN system to lead an effective, evidence-based public health response and increase the resilience of the most vulnerable health systems. The WHO is providing key global co-ordination, bringing global health systems together. It also provides evidence-based guidance and operational support where a country’s health system is too weak to deliver the response alone.
My noble friends Lord Holmes and Lord Robathan spoke about the importance of learning lessons from around the world. There is no easy solution to Covid, or indeed to reducing lockdown measures. It is really important that we learn the lessons. We are reviewing the approaches used by other countries. My colleagues across government, our Chief Scientific Adviser and our Chief Medical Officer are in regular conversation with their counterparts around the world, to share lessons and analyses. As many noble Lords highlighted, the World Health Assembly is meeting today, and provides a further opportunity to learn these lessons.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Jay of Paddington and Lady Goudie, spoke of the 0.7% commitment. That commitment remains. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, highlighted, we must be clear that there are pressures on our finances, so we cannot do everything that we wish. The important thing will be to strike the right balance between our Covid response and ensuring that we are not taking large steps back in the development gains we have seen over the years.
In specific answer to the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, the £388 million for CEPI and the WHO is ODA money, but the Oxford and Imperial funding is not.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that the work of the Department for International Development is more important than ever, and I also agree about the importance of taking a truly holistic approach to how we respond.
The noble Lords, Lord McConnell and Lord Bruce, spoke of the importance of 12 years of quality education for girls and education in general. It is important that we continue our focus on that. Before Covid-19, we were already facing a learning crisis. We are working to help mitigate the immediate effect of Covid-19 and school closures on pupils and the education workforce by addressing child safety, nutrition, well-being and learning. We are also working to preserve education systems and finance in the medium to long term by maintaining school places and school education funding, improving the crisis response and working towards a recovery when schools reopen.
As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, highlighted, we have made contributions to Education Cannot Wait, as have other donors. We are also working closely with UNESCO, the Global Partnership for Education and other donors to ensure that we get the funding we need. In the slightly longer term, we are working on our detailed girls’ education strategy and action plan, and on integrating that into our Covid-19 response.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, spoke about the importance of keeping in mind the significant gendered impacts of this crisis, including the surge in gender-based violence. We are really clear that our global response must explicitly consider and support women and girls. We know that women and girls will be particularly hard hit by the secondary impacts of the pandemic, but they will also be the backbone of recovery in communities. We therefore support the meaningful participation and leadership of women and girls, in both the immediate response and the longer-term recovery process. That will be essential to build back better and have a fully resilient recovery.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, spoke about the importance of sexual and reproductive health services. We are making sure that we provide those services in response to prevent unintended pregnancies, dangerous back-street abortions, HIV infections and higher risks for mothers and babies. We are flexing our flagship WISH programme in Africa, to ensure that women get access to the sexual and reproductive health services that they need. We are also reorienting existing bilateral programmes to ensure that women and girls can continue to access services they need during the lockdown.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, spoke of the importance of malaria and of the UK as a long-standing leader on it. I assure her that that will continue. Despite the huge efforts which saw malaria deaths halved between 2000 and 2015, progress has been stalled; in addition, progress is threatened by Covid-19. Our priority on malaria today is to support countries to continue to provide essential health services during this pandemic. We are actively flexing our health programmes to make that happen and working with countries to ensure that essential malaria services continue.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, spoke on the importance of food security. We are repurposing programmes in agriculture, social protection and humanitarian assistance to tackle the factors driving Covid-19-induced food insecurity. We are also a major funder of existing multilateral programmes in this area, such as the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme. We have committed £50 million to the World Food Programme’s recent urgent appeals and are learning the evidence from previous crises to make sure that we are sharing evidence on improved action. In all this, we continue to put the poorest and most marginalised at the heart of our programmes to address the underlying causes of chronic hunger.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Jay and Lady Sheehan, along with other noble Lords, spoke about the importance of NGOs. Civil society organisations and NGOs are key policy and delivery partners for DfID. We work with a range of charities and the work which the NGOs do is critical. Civil society plays a particularly important role in ensuring that our aid reaches the most vulnerable. DfID has channelled much of its initial support to multilaterals to ensure that we can achieve the necessary scale of action and co-ordination. Much of that work will be delivered on the ground through NGOs such as Plan International, working with the Education Cannot Wait fund. We are working with the UN to make sure that our contributions are channelled to NGOs and others as quickly as possible.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, referred to £20 million going to NGOs; that is just part of our funding to NGOs, which is done through our rapid response facility. We have also allocated money to NGOs through our Unilever partnership and recently launched a new round of Aid Direct for small and medium-sized charities. Our Small Charities Challenge Fund, for the UK’s smallest and best charities, is open to applications. However, I speak to NGOs regularly and am very aware that the charity sector, like many others, is facing financial and delivery challenges as a result of Covid-19. Many charities have already made use of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. We are also working flexibly and collaboratively with current NGO partners to ensure continued programme delivery. That includes applying Cabinet Office guidance on supply relief to help them continue to deliver life-saving aid.
I join my noble friends Lord Holmes of Richmond and Lord Bridgeman, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in thanking front-line workers here and abroad. My noble friend Lord Bridgeman’s idea of a royal commission is an interesting one. I will take it back to the health department, but I agree that we must learn from all these experiences.
On the issue of refugees, which was raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Lords, Lord Griffiths and Lord Alton, the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, and others, we are working hard to respond to refugee crises and forced displacement globally. Our existing programmes already provide access to public health information on clean water, sanitation and health services for displaced people and their host communities, and we are working closely with international partners to ensure that the global response addresses the needs and vulnerabilities of displaced populations. We are lobbying the UN to ensure that they are included in the global humanitarian response plan, and that their rights are protected. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, rightly highlighted the importance of access to such people. We are working hard to ensure that those delivering these essential services get the access they need. We are very concerned to see the recent reports of cases in Cox’s Bazar, among the Rohingya people. We are working closely to do all we can in such challenging circumstances to ensure that we can contain the spread of the disease.
The noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh spoke about the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene. They are really important during periods of physical distancing and will be central to preventing the spread of Covid-19. This is the first line of defence against it. We know that handwashing with water and soap kills the virus, but that means access to running water in sufficient quantities.
We are also concerned about an underlying crisis of inadequate WASH in healthcare facilities in developing countries. I have already mentioned the new initiative with Unilever, which will help to strengthen government-led hygiene communication. We are also contributing to the UNICEF global appeal to strengthen water and sanitation co-ordination in countries to assist with the Covid-19 response.
The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Collins, spoke about the key importance of making sure that we address our response to older people and those with disabilities. We remain deeply concerned about the significant impact of this crisis on marginalised groups. People with disabilities and older people are more at risk of contracting and dying of Covid-19, because of underlying health conditions and existing barriers, which have been intensified by the crisis. As well as the increased risk of contracting the illness, people with disabilities, older people and other marginalised groups will experience secondary impacts, such as decreased access to services. We are engaging internationally to push for greater explicit consideration of and support to marginalised people. The new funding we are providing through our rapid response facility will target support for vulnerable people.
The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, spoke about our response in Africa. We are rapidly adapting our bilateral programmes across Africa to help counter the health, humanitarian and economic impact of Covid-19. We provided health experts to give direct support to African countries, made significant contributions to the multilateral response and are supporting the WHO team to help co-ordinate the regional response.
The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, and my noble friend Lord Robathan asked about numbers of cases in developing countries. While the WHO publishes regular updates on the numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths at a global, regional and country level, reporting, testing and surveillance systems in low-income and middle-income countries are generally weak. That is due to the limited number of tests available, and weaknesses in health, laboratory and information systems. As a result, there are likely to be more cases and deaths than are reported, but exactly how many is not clear. To help address that, we are supporting the development of new tests, supporting the WHO to strengthen its testing and surveillance, and backing research partnerships to strengthen data quality.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws and Lady Ritchie, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, spoke about the importance of ensuring that human rights continue to be recognised. We are aware of and concerned by reports of the measures taken by some countries in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, which may unduly restrict human rights and democracy. States must not use the pandemic as a cover for repressive action, such as silencing human rights defenders or journalists. They should restrict rights only so far as permissible under international human rights law. Through our international engagement, we have made it clear that any restriction of human rights must be lawful, targeted, time limited and subject to regular review to ensure that it remains necessary, as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement with his European counterparts to mark World Press Freedom Day. As the noble Baroness highlighted, this risk has a disproportionate impact on marginalised and vulnerable groups, including the elderly, women and girls, minorities and people with disabilities. The phrase “We’re all in this together” has a meaning only if we can avoid the most vulnerable suffering disproportionately. We will continue to raise human rights in all our international engagements.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Goudie and Lady Sheehan, and others spoke about the importance of a ceasefire. When we are fighting this virus, the last thing we need is to be fighting each other. The UK supports the call from the UN Secretary-General for a global ceasefire and his appeal to open up spaces for diplomacy to protect the most vulnerable, allow humanitarian access and focus our collective energies on fighting Covid-19. In recent years, we strongly supported the Secretary-General’s Sustaining Peace agenda and encouraged the UN to place more emphasis on conflict prevention and peacebuilding.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, spoke about NATO. We are supporting NATO as a really important actor in the global response and encouraging the use of NATO’s unique capabilities in our international collaboration. We will continue to protect our NATO commitments during the Covid-19 response, but we must also prevent potential adversaries from exploiting the crisis, as others have highlighted. We therefore support NATO’s efforts against disinformation, which seeks to divide allies, discredit NATO and sow division within our societies. We are deploying our defence experts into NATO to support this effort and putting our expertise at NATO’s disposal. We also continue to ask NATO allies to support vulnerable NATO partners where they can.
The noble Lords, Lord Loomba and Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord Blencathra spoke about the global review into the handling of this crisis. As the Foreign Secretary said, there will need to be a full review of what happened. That will need to include looking at why the outbreak happened, why it was not stopped earlier and what can be done to manage any outbreaks in the future.
The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner and Lord Rennard, spoke about Taiwan. The UK’s position on Taiwan is of long standing and is unchanged: we support Taiwanese participation in international organisations where there is a precedent for their involvement, where they can contribute to the global good and where there is no prerequisite of nationhood for participation. That includes the World Health Organization.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked about the British Council. Of course, Covid-19 has had a significant impact on the British Council’s operations and finances. More than 95% of its English teaching and examination centres worldwide have closed, so its cash flow and income have sharply reduced. The noble Baroness highlighted the support that the FCO has provided for additional funding for this financial year. We have also provided some of next year’s grant in aid funding up front to help alleviate pressures, but we are in ongoing conversations with the British Council.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh spoke about wet markets. Conclusive evidence about the origin and mode of transmission of Covid-19 is not yet available, but the virus has really highlighted the health risks associated with keeping and selling live animals, particularly wild animals, and their meat. There is no doubt that poorly managed wildlife trade poses threats to animal health and welfare, diminishes our biodiversity and can result in serious public health issues. The keeping and selling of live animals, including wild animals, or their slaughter for meat in wet markets, can pose significant threats. That is why we agreed with the WHO that it is important to ensure strict food hygiene and health standards and that markets should close if they are not met. Looking ahead, we want to engage with all global stakeholders to understand the range of views on this sensitive matter. I look forward to working with our international partners in the immediate future to make sure that we can build a clean and resilient recovery.
Many noble Lords raised equitable access to vaccines. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, highlighted, we support the WHO’s Access to Covid Tools. Proposals for the development of and access to these tools are currently being discussed, including at the World Health Assembly today. The UK has long supported affordable and equitable access to essential medicines, including in low and middle-income countries. That is being discussed at the moment and I hope to have more information on it shortly.
I am running out of time. I will touch briefly on malnutrition, because its prevention and treatment are part of our immediate response. We will continue to work with the Government of Japan to ensure that they can deliver a successful Nutrition for Growth summit. As I did earlier, I acknowledge the importance of ensuring that we do not have a cliff edge on our nutrition funding.
Lastly, I thank my noble friend Lady Buscombe for highlighting Bhutan’s response. I join her in congratulating it and wishing it well for the future.
I am out of time, and I apologise because I have not answered all of the many and wide-ranging questions, despite the speed I speak at. I will follow up with a full and complete letter, taking on board everybody’s questions that I was not able to attend to today. This crisis is very much ongoing and it is important that we begin to think about sustainable recovery, as well as making sure that we are dealing with its impacts. The hard-won development gains achieved over recent decades are at risk. Economies have been ravaged and hunger will become famine unless we act now. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, highlighted, our climate crisis continues to deepen. There are no easy answers, but when we emerge from this crisis we will owe it to all those who have struggled and to those we have lost to rebuild a more resilient, healthier and greener world.
My Lords, the Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until a convenient point after 9 pm for questions on the government Statement.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.