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World Health Organization: Pandemics

Volume 810: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to strengthen the role of the World Health Organization to support the management of future pandemics.

My Lords, the UK is a strong supporter of the WHO and an advocate of reform to ensure that it further strengthens its ability to respond effectively to health emergencies. The UK is taking a leading role on reform through our seat at the WHO Executive Board and our G7 presidency. We are working with international partners to push for a stronger early warning system, reduced risk of zoonotic diseases through better surveillance and improved compliance with international health regulations.

My Lords, I am delighted that the UK Government are providing support to the World Health Organization, contributing to COVAX and taking this very important role of reform. Further to the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response report, which talked about the World Health Organization being

“underpowered to do the job expected of it”,

will the Government ensure that this is discussed at G7 and that the world will commit to doing whatever it takes to ensure that the WHO is able to respond even more effectively to pandemics in the future?

My Lords, the Government are extremely committed to pandemic preparedness. We support the principle of a pandemic preparedness treaty, and we have laid out at UNGA a very clear programme for enhancing global pandemic preparedness. We look forward to the publication of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response report shortly, and I reassure the noble Lord that this is top of the agenda at our G7.

Does the Minister agree that the WHO could support the management of future pandemics now by organising a worldwide vaccine passport? People are very keen to travel, and this would help the travel industry and could act as an incentive to those who are reluctant to take the vaccine.

My Lords, I share the noble Lord’s passion for international travel. Like him, I cannot wait for global travel to restart. I also see the connection between the promise of a vaccine certificate of some kind and taking up the vaccine itself. Plans for vaccine certificates for global travel are emerging as we speak. We have a Cabinet Office programme which is co-ordinating across government initiatives on vaccine certification, and a review is in progress which will pronounce shortly.

[Inaudible]—excellent record in research, are the Government able to work through the WHO to promote research into recyclable PPE to avoid the environmental hazard of an enormous pile-up of plastics and discarded PPE? Can the Government work on a public education programme of basic hygiene, with clean water and soap available across the world, so that the very basic principles of hygiene can be maintained?

My Lords, the environmental consequences of the pandemic are indeed severe, as the noble Baroness rightly points out. We are working with colleagues in Defra to try to figure out answers to this tricky problem of the legacy of all this PPE. With regards to hygiene education around the world, we have a number of programmes in place, through ODA and our various international development plans, and hygiene is very much at the centre of those.

My Lords, has the pandemic not brought home almost more powerfully than ever before the total interdependence of the global community? Therefore, are the international institutions such as the WHO and other specialised UN agencies the only way that we can have a sane future for society as a whole? We cannot forge that on our own as an island. We played a distinguished part in the role of developing organisations such as the WHO in the past. Can the noble Lord reassure us that it is not just a matter of saying that we have priorities and commitments but of ensuring that the whole culture of government looks towards strengthening international institutions such as the WHO?

I completely agree with the noble Lord. A multilateral approach is at the heart of our response to the pandemic, and I agree that we are not safe here in the UK until the whole world has addressed the question of the pandemic.

My Lords, the World Health Organization recommends regular handwashing as a critical preventive measure against Covid-19, but 3 billion people worldwide lack access to soap and water at home. The UK’s Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition responded to the onset of the pandemic with a £100 million commitment to reach a billion people, but this project is now ending. It is wonderful to have the Government’s support for this project, but will they put their money where their mouth is and continue to fund this vital project?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her tribute to the Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition. I cannot offer guarantees from the Dispatch Box on its future funding, but I will inquire about the matter. As the noble Baroness suggests, it sounds like a fascinating and important project.

My Lords, after last month’s embarrassing Potemkin investigation of Wuhan, will my noble friend the Minister ask the WHO to insist that the Chinese Government release the genome sequences of eight bat viruses of the so-called 7896 clade held in the Wuhan Institute of Virology database that are known to be very closely related to SARS-CoV-2 and may hold critical clues, but which they refuse to release?

My Lords, we are extremely hopeful for the IPPPR process, and we have supported the team in its desire to get to the bottom of its investigations. I do not know the specifics of the bat viruses to which my noble friend refers, but I reassure him that the British Government are leaning on the WHO as hard as we possibly can to make the most of this important investigation.

Given the cuts to the aid budget which have been announced, and given that experience shows that the world’s reaction to pandemics is to panic and then forget—which Covid-19 has cruelly exposed—can the Minister expand on how HMG are going to support the World Health Organization to address the immediate urgent work to fight the pandemic and to build for the future the firepower and structure to better handle an issue of global magnitude under the Government’s current budget constraints?

My Lords, the financial support of the WHO from the Government is generous, and so is our support of COVAX. When it comes to the WHO, we are looking for stronger horizon scanning and early warning, higher-quality technical guidance that is tailored to different countries and resource settings, and greater co-ordination of governance and activity across the animal, human and environmental interface. This is a really clear manifesto. The Prime Minister has laid it out clearly, and we are using the G7 process to ensure that there is support for it across the G7 countries.

My Lords, do the Government fully recognise that most of the poorest countries, even states such as Vietnam, are still coping without any vaccinations? Does the Minister agree that much more attention must be paid to the support of local health services in the least developed countries? They are easily bypassed when there are major international health campaigns.

The noble Earl refers to the important role that the WHO plays. Of course, we are all frustrated sometimes with our multilateral organisations, but the noble Earl quite rightly alludes to the dependence that many countries have on the advice, counsel and practical support that organisations such as the WHO provide. That is why we want the WHO to step up to its responsibilities, why we have instituted a major reform programme recommendation, and why we are extremely hopeful that the WHO steps up.

My Lords, the WHO is not a sitting member of the G7, but we have a representative attending our health track in Oxford, and we have been in dialogue with them directly with our agenda on the G7.

The WHO website officially states that, on 30 January, it declared a public health emergency of international concern. It claims that not many countries took much notice and that it was not until it used the word “pandemic”, on 11 March, five weeks later, that people sat up and took notice. This is clearly unsatisfactory. Will my noble friend do all that he can, as I hope he will, to ensure that the system of notification is improved at the earliest opportunity?

My Lords, my noble friend is right in her chronology, but we want the WHO to continue to learn lessons on how to improve its response to global health emergencies in the early stage. The delay in that global response is something that the WHO needs to learn from.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the third Oral Question. I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, intends to ask this Question on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Nye.