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Nepal: Covid-19 Vaccine Request

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 20 May 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the request by the government of Nepal for two million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to tackle the spread of the disease in that country.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I declare my interest as deputy colonel commandant of the Brigade of Gurkhas.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear that equitable access is an integral part of the UK’s approach to vaccine distribution. The United Kingdom has provided £548 million to COVAX, which has already delivered over 59 million doses across three continents. This includes 348,000 doses to Nepal. In total, COVAX has allocated almost 2 million doses to Nepal, which will be delivered free of charge. We will share the majority of any future domestic vaccine surplus with COVAX.

My Lords, there can be no greater champion in the Government for Nepal than my noble friend the Minister, in part because he understands, as your Lordships’ House understands, the great bond that exists between our two countries. For over 200 years, through every conflict and crisis that our nation has faced, the brave men of Nepal have fought and died for the Crown. Now, as Covid spreads across the north Indian plain, Nepal faces a crisis of its own. Can my noble friend reassure us, as the air corridor opens this evening, that the enduring comradeship that has stretched across the centuries will result in us doing everything that we possibly can to support our ally?

My Lords, I return the compliment by paying tribute to my noble friend for his work and his advocacy for Nepal. I can also further assure him that this morning I met with the Minister for the Armed Forces, and the MoD is standing up a military, medical and advisory team on the ground to assess. They will be leaving early next week to assess the requirements on the ground. I am directly engaging with the Government of Nepal. Indeed, I had a very constructive meeting with the Foreign Minister yesterday, establishing exactly what the key requirements are, and later this afternoon I will be meeting the Nepalese ambassador to the Court of St James to further discuss issues of logistics. We have already extended support, including funding an oxygen generation plant at the Nepal Police Hospital, and we are working on the ground through our embassy, and with officials within the FCDO and the MoD, to see what further support can be extended at the earliest opportunity.

My Lords, despite the work of COVAX, is not the absence of an effective international vaccine manufacturing and distribution system that meets world demand perfectly illustrated by Nepal’s reported difficulties, particularly when the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer, is situated in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra in India, next door to Nepal? With an 8 billion world population at risk and potentially only a 4 billion worldwide double -dosage manufacturing capacity, as yet unrealised, how can world demand be met?

The challenges—the noble Lord mentioned the Serum Institute of India, which I know well as the Minister for India, and the challenges in India in terms of the current wave sweeping across the country—are well known. We have seen a stepping up in terms of manufacturing and collaboration, and the United Kingdom’s structured approach to the COVAX facility demonstrates the importance, as the noble Lord himself acknowledges, of a global supply chain which guarantees the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines across the world.

This disastrous surge in cases has now, unsurprisingly, spread to Nepal. We are likely to see this pattern replicated worldwide, yet it is reported that the UK stopped adding to the global vaccination efforts when we cut aid. How can we claim, as we have, that we will be leading the world at the G7 in recovery from the pandemic if we cannot even do that?

My Lords, that is just not the case. We are leading the efforts, along with other key partners, on vaccines, and again, as I said in my original Answer, any surplus vaccines in the United Kingdom will be distributed through the COVAX scheme.

My Lords, Nepal and the United Kingdom have one of the oldest diplomatic relationships within south Asia, a friendship represented by generations of Gurkha soldiers and mountaineers. Can my noble friend the Minister outline what other steps are being taken to engage with the Nepalese Government to better understand their needs and to ensure that human care and support are provided in the most effective way possible?

My Lords, I have already alluded to the cross-government approach and the structured approach. We are engaging with the Nepalese Government directly, both in Kathmandu and in the UK. We are sending experts in technical support and assisting Nepal’s Ministry of Health in its responses. We will continue with a very active dialogue both in Kathmandu and in London.

My Lords, this is an emergency on the scale of Nepal’s civil war or the 2015 earthquake. Is the UK responding adequately, especially to the local demand for vaccines and oxygen? The Minister will be aware of the current fragility of government and of rural health services, but there are also many experienced NGOs supporting clinics there—both Nepalese and international—with safe supply lines. Are we making full use of those?

My Lords, I assure the noble Earl that we are looking at all key players to ensure that the response and the requirements of Nepal can be met in the best possible manner by the United Kingdom working with other international partners.

My Lords, yesterday in the Queen’s Speech debate, I argued for the utilisation and expansion of local manufacturing capacity in low and middle-income countries. Today, Labour has put forward a 10-point plan to transform the volume of vaccine production worldwide, including a global register of potential production facilities. Will the Government support this vital initiative?

My Lords, I have not yet seen the 10-point plan, but I look forward to it. On this occasion, I must disappoint the noble Lord—I have not seen his tweet—but I will certainly reflect on the important points. In all seriousness, we need to co-operate globally to ensure the best and most effective response to meeting the challenges not only of the current pandemic but of future pandemics as well.

My Lords, while we have to await the outcome of the current census, the current estimate of the population of the United Kingdom with Nepalese roots is between 80,000 and 100,000. May I therefore urge the Minister to treat this request for support as not just a foreign policy issue but a domestic issue, and to ensure that we keep in close touch with the local communities to reassure them that we are supporting their families?

My Lords, I can give the noble Baroness that assurance. Our experience of the support we have extended to India lends to the strength of our diaspora communities. I have asked my office to set up a meeting with private sector representatives to see what we can do in strengthening the diaspora’s response to the needs of Nepal.

My Lords, I declare that I am the founder and chairman of the UK-Nepal Trade and Investment Forum and vice-chair of the APPG on Nepal. The situation in Nepal is dire: it needs our immediate help. I have received representations from the Nepalese diaspora and have had several discussions with His Excellency the Nepalese ambassador. The country needs ICU ventilators, oxygen cylinders and concentrators, oxygen plants, ICU beds, test kits and, of course, vaccines. I have written to the Minister on this matter and am waiting for an answer. Also, I am galvanising Muslim charities to provide aid in Nepal immediately.

My Lords, I have received my noble friend’s letter and I will be responding to him. The list is well known to me, and I have already talked about engaging with the diaspora. I will be in touch with my noble friend to convene a meeting so we can address the direct needs.

My Lords, I fully support the UK Government and indeed applaud them for providing vaccines to Nepal and other developing countries. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government yet know whether we will need booster jabs for our UK frail and elderly in the autumn and, if so, whether vaccines for developing countries will take priority over booster jabs for the frail and elderly in this country?

I defer to my excellent colleague and noble friend Lord Bethel, who can respond more effectively to the noble Baroness’s question. However, we are working with the developing world to ensure we meet its requirements as well.

Did the Minister note that when the Prime Minister of Nepal realised he had made a mistake, he resigned? Is it not indicative that he has more honour than the Prime Minister here?

My Lords, I know our Prime Minister. I worked with our Prime Minister when he was Foreign Secretary. I have seen a side to our Prime Minister that perhaps other noble Lords have not seen. This is a Prime Minister who went through the challenge of Covid-19 himself and when he returned to the office—the noble Lord shakes his head, but it is important—we saw it, we heard it and we delivered on it. The first priority, the first thing he spearheaded, was the response to the Covid-19 challenge, not just in the UK but across the world. He was instrumental in setting up the COVAX facility, which is benefiting more than 92 developing countries around the world. That is the fact. I know our Prime Minister personally and well, and he has led from the front on this agenda.

Sitting suspended.