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Covid-19: Support for India

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 27 April 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to reports that India has had over 350,000 daily cases of Covid-19, what support they will provide to the Government of India.

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said:

“We stand side by side with India as a friend and partner … in the fight against Covid-19.”

I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say we send our solidarity and condolences to the Indian people at this most difficult of times. The United Kingdom is providing life-saving medical equipment including hundreds of oxygen concentrators and ventilators. The first shipment arrived in India in the early hours of this morning, and there is more to follow.

I thank my noble friend for that response. India’s giant second wave is a disaster, not just for India but for the whole world. It has shown that this global pandemic is relentless and knows no bounds. It would be a mounting challenge for any healthcare system in the world to deal with the Covid-19 cases India is currently experiencing, with its population of 1.3 billion. However, to date, India has been the world’s pharmacy and has provided 60% of the world’s vaccines—exporting them to over 100 countries, including here in the United Kingdom—along with providing PPE and even paracetamol during our severe first wave last year. Does the Minister agree that the time has come for us to reciprocate that good will and not forget the invaluable partnership that the UK and India have demonstrated over the last year in tackling this global pandemic together?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. As I said in my original Answer, let me reassure him that we are very much working around the clock in assisting India directly. We are liaising with the Indian Government and the authorities, as we did over this weekend, to ensure we meet their requirements. India is an important friend and a key partner in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. My noble friend is also correct that it is commonly known as the pharmacy of the world. India is in need and we will help our friend at this time.

The noble Lord, Lord Popat, is absolutely right about India’s contribution in tackling the pandemic. The UK’s response, together with the news of support from the US, France and Germany, is very welcome. Can the Minister tell us what mechanism is in place to ensure proper co-ordination of the global response to ensure that India gets what it needs most and in the right place?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right to raise co-ordination. Anyone who has worked on any aid relief knows that everyone is well intentioned, but it is about getting the right items to the right place at the right time. In this respect, we are working directly with the Indian authorities. I am in constant liaison with the Indian high commissioner, as well our own high commissioner, on the ground in Delhi. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to his opposite number, Dr Jaishankar, the Foreign Minister of India. The Health Secretary has also spoken to Harsh Vardhan, the Health Minister of India, to ensure that their priorities are reflected in the support we provide.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the catastrophe in India could soon spread wider in the region and globally? It is therefore vital that vaccination is rolled out globally, and at a much faster rate than now. What action are the Government taking to step this up globally?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. Again, I reiterate the point that I think every noble Lord would express: we will not beat this virus until the whole world is vaccinated effectively. The noble Baroness will be aware of our efforts working on this through the COVAX Facility in particular, which, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said repeatedly, remains the primary source of ensuring equitable access around the world.

My Lords, I commend the UK Government for providing this timely support, and the UK for standing by India. Yesterday, in my capacity as the UK chair of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, I participated in a meeting organised by the Indian and UK high commissions to assess specific requirements, what businesses can offer, and how best to mobilise and co-ordinate so that there is no supply and demand mismatch. The response was heartening. Will the Minister agree that it is highly commendable that steps are being taken to match specific needs and demands with relevant supply? Can the Government please ensure that, apart from meeting immediate and urgent needs, assessment of and support for medium and long-term needs in not overlooked?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s work in this respect. Suffice it to say that I totally agree with her on both points and we are doing just that.

My Lords, would my noble friend tell the House how the Government are co-ordinating with organisations such as BAPS, Sewa, Go Dharmic and many others that are all doing things to ensure they support the people of India? He has talked about co-ordination with other Governments and with India, but it is also about making sure that help coming from here is not piecemeal and can support what the Government are doing.

I acknowledge my noble friend’s work in this respect. She is totally correct: we need to ensure that we co-ordinate the impact and really leverage the strength of the British-Indian diaspora. I assure her that we are doing just that. The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, mentioned a meeting that took place yesterday. Similar meetings are being arranged to ensure that we meet the needs and requirements of India at the appropriate time. Many people are coming forward to provide support, but it must be the right kind of support at the right time.

My Lords, the real extent of deaths due to coronavirus is unlikely ever to be known. We have seen television pictures of funeral pyres and patients clutching empty oxygen cylinders. The efforts to assist from the British Government, countries in Europe and the United States are praiseworthy. Is the Minister in discussion with other countries to ensure that help is sent to India as far as it is possible to do so? Secondly, there is a large Indian diaspora in this country that is raising a substantial amount of money to be sent to India. Can his department offer any advice on where such charitable help should be sent so that areas in greatest need benefit most?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. All of us have been impacted by the scenes on our screens of people taking, in some tragic cases, their very last breaths because they cannot get oxygen. I assure the noble Lord that we are co-ordinating our efforts. Indeed, the shipment of the first tranche of assistance went across in co-ordination with our European partners specifically. I suggest that the noble Lord co-ordinates on what he is asking for in the medium and longer-term. The Indian high commission has specific individuals and has identified organisations. That should be one of the first channels or courses of support that should be provided.

My Lords, I declare my interest in the register. I applaud the aid that the UK Government have already sent to India. As we all know, vaccination is the biggest weapon in the fight against Covid-19. If the Loomba Foundation raises substantial funds from the Indian diaspora in the UK, will the FCDO match the amount? It will be used to buy vaccines for India or to support Indian vaccine manufacturers to increase their production.

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate that I cannot give him the assurance of match funding, but I can share that the support we have provided thus far has been in the form of donations directly from Her Majesty’s Government. That was arranged by the FCDO.

Now that the Government have run an incredibly successful UK vaccination campaign, does my noble friend agree that we can reach out and help other countries without harming a single UK subject or slowing down our own vaccination effort? Will he put India at the top of the list and give it all possible help, now and for as long as is necessary, since it is a member of our Commonwealth family and sheer Christian humanity compels us to help those who are in such desperate need?

My Lords, let me assure my noble friend in relation to all countries that require support, since he is right to point out that it is about not just getting the vaccines but having the ability to distribute them. A number of countries have received them through the COVAX Facility but, given the expiry dates, they must ensure equitable distribution. We are working with not just India but other countries. I assure him, as both the Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the Minister responsible for our relations with India, that those issues remain high up my priority list.

My Lords, India has brilliant scientists and the largest vaccine-making and exporting facility in the world yet its Government, referring to Muslims as termites, seem to be more focused on creating a Hindu India than battling the Covid crisis. Will the Minister agree that while we should continue sending welcome medical supplies, we should also urge our Commonwealth partner to allow India’s scientific and medical talent to take the lead in logistics, safety precautions and treatment to combat the deadly pandemic?

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the academic nature of India; the ability and expertise there within science and academia are well known. Indeed, our country, the United Kingdom, benefits incredibly from that very contribution. It is therefore right that we stand shoulder to shoulder with India at this time, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said. On the noble Lord’s earlier point, as someone who is Muslim by faith and Indian by heritage, I value and celebrate India’s rich diversity. Yes, it has challenges and issues, as every country does, but it is a strong democracy where each religion and community has the constitutional protection that it deserves. It is important that we recognise that, particularly at this time of great challenge for India.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on their urgent remitting of vital supplies to India in this emergency. I also encourage my noble friend to continue to ensure that any medications or treatments for Covid-19 are sent to India because, clearly, with an aim of 300 million vaccinations per quarter—and only 1% or 2% of the population having received both shots—there is a long road to go for the vaccine itself to work. In that connection, I commend the Government on our own successful rollout.

I thank my noble friend for her remarks and, of course, I recognise that the issue of remdesivir supplies, for example, is one of India’s requirements. I assure her that, as I said, what we have delivered thus far is just the first tranche of our support. We are working closely with the Indian authorities to identify when and how we can access what is required and then support them accordingly.

My Lords, just two months ago, there were fewer than 100 sad deaths a day in a country of 1.4 billion people—and here we are, two months later, with this awful and tragic situation. Do the Government agree that the way that the Indian high commissioner and the UK high commissioner organised and co-ordinated so many organisations, including the CBI—of which I am president—the CII, FICCI, the British Asian Trust and others, is commendable? We are all working at speed to procure oxygen concentrators, generators, remdesivir and lateral flow tests. Would the Minister also agree that, at this time of extreme crisis, it shows how important our partnership with India is, including the 1.5 million in the living bridge of the Indian diaspora here—and that this is a special relationship in all areas, well beyond just trade and investment?

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord. He pointed to the living bridge, and I welcomed his contributions to that meeting yesterday; he is a fine example of that very bridge, but a living bridge has to be alive. Yesterday again demonstrated very strongly that given the response we have seen from the British Indian diaspora, and the British people as a whole, we are truly an example of a living bridge between two countries.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on their aid response to India and hope that support will continue for as long as it is needed. Are the Government also providing advice in relation to the reports that political rallies and religious festivals may have been two of the largest contributing factors to the current Covid crisis? What advice, learning and experience are the Government sharing with the Government of India to assist them in their understanding and handling of this crisis?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to raise the issue of large public gatherings as our own experience demonstrates the fact that, when you curb large gatherings, you see an impact in relation to curbing the spread of the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic I think that, all countries, including ourselves and India, are learning lessons from the challenge of Covid-19. However, undoubtedly, one thing is clear, and we are sharing our experiences and insights on this: large gatherings should not be held during a pandemic. We hope that countries looking at the situation globally will realise that it is important that we practise social distancing and prevent large gatherings taking place, particularly when the pandemic is still very much alive.