Skip to main content

International Health Regulations: Amendments

Volume 838: debated on Tuesday 7 May 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the warning by independent WHO experts at the Brownstone Institute that amendments to the International Health Regulations to be made at its forthcoming meeting in May 2024 may contravene Article 55 of those Regulations.

The Government are satisfied that negotiations on amendments to the International Health Regulations comply with Article 55 of those regulations. Member states proposed amendments, which were communicated to all member states in December 2022 and then posted online. Since then, member states have been negotiating the proposals. As per Article 55, the timeline is well in advance of the World Health Assembly this May, where they are due to be considered for agreement.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for the reply. Irrespective of the WHO’s current interpretation of its own rules, the fact remains that Article 55(2) clearly says it is required to give member states four months’ written notice before the amendments are agreed at the end of this month, and it has clearly failed to do so. Bearing this in mind, and that the Government have been less than transparent about the UK’s aims in these negotiations, and bearing in mind the WHO’s woeful performance in the Covid pandemic, does the Minister agree that, regardless of the legal position, it would be wise to delay the votes until the next WHA so that we can have proper parliamentary scrutiny of what the Government are signing us up to?

The key thing that we are looking at here, which I would hope that all of us could agree on, is that we will not agree to anything in this process which impacts our sovereignty as a country and our ability to react to a pandemic in a way that is appropriate for this country and this Government. I hope that we can all rely on that, and that is very much our approach to these negotiations.

My Lords, objective 2 of the UK’s Global Health Framework says that the Government will:

“Reform global health architecture, including through a strengthened World Health Organization, driving more coherent governance and collaboration across the international system”.

Aside from producing a winning sentence for policy buzzword bingo, can the Minister point to any specific global health architecture wins that the Government have had in the year since that policy was published?

I am not sure in what year that policy was published. However, I can talk about how, when we were president of the G7 in 2021, we led the calls to donate vaccines on a worldwide basis, which led to 1.2 billion doses being donated to countries all around the world, led by Britain’s initiative with AstraZeneca. That was great global co-operation and we can feel very proud of it.

My Lords, the Government said that they would learn the lessons from the Covid problems. How have they tackled the issue of production of equipment that was needed for Covid but which we did not have? The Government promised to make sure that we will have it next time. Can he give us an update on that?

Of course, we covered much of this when we had a Question on 15 April around this. This is about making sure that we have the diagnostic capability—which we have—and the ability to scale up. We have made a £125 million-fund available for precisely the issue that the noble Lord mentions, so we have the mothballed capacity ready to operate at quick notice.

My Lords, on 14 January 2020 the World Health Organization declared that there was no evidence of person-to-person transmission of the Covid virus. It was parroting the line of the Chinese Government, which at that time were terrified of any investigation of the lab leak theory. Does my noble friend the Minister worry that giving more powers of co-ordination and control to this body will mean less diversity, more homogeneity and the suppression of any attempt to be a Sweden or a Florida, or anyone else who might buck the consensus and thereby, God forbid, suggest that these extreme and draconian lockdowns may not have been the best policy response?

We are talking about two very different things here. One is ensuring that, as a country, we are armed with the information as quickly as possible so that we can act; getting the genomic sequencing of the original strain was vital for us to be able to prepare a vaccine so quickly, so that information sharing is vital. In terms of the impact on our ability to act as a sovereign Government, that is something very different; it is key and understood, and the Covid inquiry now is all about learning lessons. As my noble friend knows, I have personal views about that second lockdown: we need to be looking at the wider impact of that second lockdown in areas such as mental health and other areas in which there was an impact on children, but that is a matter that will always be for the UK Government to decide on.

My Lords, the problems that arose during the Covid pandemic in respect of the WHO were because the WHO was let down by one of its members and not properly informed quickly enough of the symptoms that were occurring in that country. There is no point in blaming it when the blame rests with the collective membership of the WHO, which now needs to be repaired. Does the Minister not agree that postponing that repair work will not serve our or anyone else’s purpose?

I do agree: I do not think that it would help to postpone it. I had this exact conversation with the American Health Secretary, who is very aware that we are getting nearer and nearer to an American election and, for all the countries to be able to co-operate fully, the timing is right to reach a solution now. However, we will not reach an agreement at any cost or anything which might impact our sovereignty.

My Lords, the Brownstone Institute, to which the noble Lord’s Question refers, was set up to work against Covid restrictions and lists articles which argue that Covid-19 vaccines do not work, that children should not be vaccinated and that vaccine mandates compare with the crimes of the Soviet gulag. On this basis, perhaps the Minister would like to comment on what note he should be taking of the Brownstone Institute, if any. What assessment has been made of the impact of dangerous propaganda like this on the low take-up rates of vaccinations that we see among minority ethnic groups and where there are regional and social disparities?

I thank the noble Baroness. All Members of the House, when we had a good Question on the take-up of Covid vaccines, agreed that information supporting the take-up is a vital health message to get across. To any detractors, I say very firmly that it is not the view of the Government, and I know that it is not the view of nearly all noble Lords.

My Lords, returning to the treaty, am I right in thinking that it contains provision that envisages a role for the WHO in vaccine certification? If that is the case, how would that have played out when we wished to roll out our own vaccine very speedily? Would we have had to wait for WHO certification?

Again, my noble friend will agree with me that our ability to assess the vaccine more quickly than any other country and roll it out very quickly was a key asset for the UK. Clearly, we will not do anything that will put that at risk.