Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered global vaccine access.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the time for the debate. I thank those Members who are here and those who have given apologies—a number who intended to speak are speaking in the other Backbench Business debate in the Chamber—for their support. I also thank those members of the International Development Committee who are here.
In preparing for the debate, I looked back at the Backbench Business debate focused specifically on covid-19 vaccine access that I secured all the way back in November 2020. It is an odd achievement, but I was the first Member to use the phrase “vaccine nationalism” in the House. On reflection, I am saddened that, more than a year later, we are having a similar debate relating to covid and other vaccine programmes, with a number of issues unresolved.
I will focus the majority of my remarks on covid-19; it is difficult not to. In some respects things have changed considerably in the past 14 months. We now have a number of licensed vaccines in the UK, 90% of over-12s have had at least one jag or jab—whatever you prefer to call it—and more than half are fully boosted. I commend and thank all those who have worked tirelessly to create these vaccines and to ensure that they reached the public and those who need them. However, it has sadly not all been good news.
In November 2020, we were only just hearing about the delta variant spreading in India—a strain that would not enter the UK until February last year. We almost never talk about it now, as in a few short weeks from the end of year, omicron spread throughout the world and entered the UK. It was a stark reminder of something that has been said many times before: we are simply not safe until everyone is safe. While 90% of over-12s in the UK have had at least one vaccine—my own children are part of that number—that falls to 60% of the world overall.
Many countries—it will not surprise Members that it is mainly low-income countries—have hardly any access to covid vaccines. Some 2.3% of those in Nigeria have had a vaccine, 1.4% in Ethiopia, 9.8% in Afghanistan, 5% in Syria, 1.2% in Yemen and only 0.1% in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to name just a few; I could obviously go on. It is unsurprising that the consequence of this is that new variants emerge elsewhere and spread quickly through those unvaccinated populations, eventually reaching the UK. No borders, physical or otherwise, can prevent that in what is an interconnected world.
That is why we are having this debate. In that previous debate, the Minister responding, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), told us:
“The UK is proud to be at the forefront of international efforts to develop vaccines, treatments and tests and ensure equitable access for the world’s poorest countries”.—[Official Report, 5 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 575WH.]
Clearly, the situation has not moved at the pace required. I am sure the Minister will point out that the UK has pledged to donate 100 million vaccines, and that the Government reached their target of donating 30 million of those before Christmas. However, we know that getting vaccines out of the UK is only the first part of the story. We have to think about what happens to those vaccines when they arrive. Organisations on the ground report that vaccines arrive in an ad hoc manner, sometimes with little notice. Too often, they arrive with a limited shelf life, leaving in-country health teams—already overstretched, as health teams all over the world are—scrambling to get doses out to people in time. There is also no requirement currently for donations to be sent with necessary supplies, such as syringes and dilutant in order to administer those doses. Without those, a vaccine in a tube is arguably completely useless.
The United Kingdom donates vaccines that it has purchased and deemed surplus to requirements here in the country. That might suit the Government as a way to marry up vaccinations at home with meeting our commitments abroad, but sadly it leads directly to the position that I have just described, so I ask the Minister to address the following questions. Who decides what donations will be made, and when? What processes are in place to ensure that doses are sent in a timely, regular and predictable fashion? Will the Government commit to end the policy of over-purchasing vaccines and donating the surplus, and will they instead commit to putting a policy in place whereby vaccines are donated in large volumes and in a predictable manner, to allow countries to plan their roll-outs?
Will the Government publish the timelines for expected donations from the UK in the coming months as the UK sends the additional 70 million donations that it has pledged? Will they commit to ensure that donated doses have a minimum 10-week shelf life when they arrive in a country, with the exception of when individual countries have stated that they are prepared to take doses with a shorter shelf life? It is clear that in several of the countries that I have described, there are simply not the internal mechanisms in order to be able to deliver vaccines before they expire. Finally, will the Government commit to donate syringes with the vaccines, to ensure that they can actually be used on arrival and that that is something else for countries not to worry about?
I would be grateful if the Minister could address accounting for the cost of the donations. If doses of vaccine are purchased by a country for use on its own population and are then donated, which is exactly what is happening in the UK, the donations are being accounted for in our official development assistance—ODA—budget. To put it more clearly, the Department for Health and Social Care and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have budgets. The Department for Health and Social Care is using some of its budget to buy vaccines, and when it cannot use them, the FCDO donates them.
However, the FCDO then gets to say that it has purchased those vaccines from its ODA budget, thus artificially reducing the amount of money left to spend elsewhere. Even more concerning is the fact that the UK Government could account for those doses in the ODA spend at a higher price than they paid for them, thus effectively saving money that was committed elsewhere. I ask the Minister to clarify whether this is indeed her Department’s approach. Will she commit to account for the donations outside the ODA budget? If her Department is not in a position to do so, will she commit to ensure that the donations continue to be accounted for as part of ODA at their actual purchase price?
These are partially problems of oversight as we respond to a global pandemic at speed, but they are related to the problem of the Department for International Development being subsumed into the Foreign Office. They are problems that I warned about when the merger was first proposed, and I secured an urgent question on the merger in June 2020, but here we are, potentially dealing with some of those problems at a time when efficacy is key to successful delivery.
I welcome the fact that there remains a Select Committee dedicated to scrutinising international development work. I have already referred to its Members who are present, and I wholeheartedly commend their work, but it says everything about how the Government are treating international development that when I was preparing for the debate, it was not initially clear which Minister would be answering. That is because there is no longer a Minister responsible for international development. I am delighted to see the Minister for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean here today, and I look forward to her remarks, but it is not the same as having a Secretary of State or even a named Minister responsible for international development as a portfolio.
This is part of a broader narrative—a narrative of the Government stepping back from our commitments to the wider world. I am sure the Minister will say that we are better than other countries in this space, but that is just not good enough when we are stepping back and damaging our historical reputation as world leaders. As we all know, we have cut ODA spending from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%. It is an action, but not the right kind. Yes, there is a promise to restore spending at some point in the future, but there is no clarity about when that will be. The Chancellor was not as clear as he could have been, and an increase in the future does not help those in need now.
Cutting ODA spending hurts us all. The Minister will know the importance of having soft power on the ground, making friends and being trusted. Cutting spending, programmes and assistance simply does not do that. I have previously spoken in this place about the impact on the British Council. It is the same thing, because such actions break that trust. They destroy our friendships and reduce our power. We cannot be global Britain when the Government choose to step back.
I want to refer briefly to the fact that ODA cuts also hurt us at home. The University of St Andrews in my constituency of North East Fife receives funding for research projects through ODA spending. I have spoken previously about how cuts in that spending have put research projects at that university at risk. I am sure the Minister will say that our scientists have led the way in getting a vaccine in the first place, which is right, but what message does it send about how we value this research when its funding is at risk? Without that funding, will we be prepared for whatever comes next?
While we can improve how we are donating vaccines, this will not be the whole solution. COVAX does not aim to vaccinate whole countries. We will be safe only when countries are able to vaccinate their populations themselves. I have just spoken about the importance of incentivising and paying for research, but it is not contradictory to say that we must also engage with discussions about how low-income countries can manufacture their own vaccines.
The trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights waiver has been on the table for discussion for months. Why are the Government not at least engaging with these discussions? What do the Government plan to do to meet the covid vaccination need without such a waiver? If there is a plan about this, I would be keen to hear it, as donations will simply not be enough.
In a debate about global vaccine access, it would be remiss of me to talk only about covid. While covid has dominated the health agenda for the past two years, other diseases continue to spread. When it comes to routine immunisation services, the UK has a commendable record and is the largest sovereign donor to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, but the pandemic has severely put back GAVI’s work.
In 2020 alone, 3 million more children missed out on a measles vaccination than in 2019. Yes, it is vital that low-income countries get urgent access to covid vaccines, but once that is done, we must tackle the backlog of missed immunisations. It is money well spent, as $1 spent on immunisation is estimated to save $21 in healthcare costs, low wages and lost productivity. Put simply, we keep people alive. Will the Minister today commit to maintaining the £1.65 billion donation to GAVI that the Government have committed to between 2021 and 2025?
Having praised our work with GAVI, the UK’s record with other vaccination programmes is sadly less laudable, with a 95% cut in our commitment to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The Minister might say that they committed £100 million as planned, but with only £5 million actually delivered, there is no other way to describe this as anything other than a brutal cut that will have a catastrophic impact on the delivery of services. Do we really want to see polio return in the 21st century? Is the legacy of battling covid-19 going to be tens of thousands of people infected with a disease that we were close to eradicating? Will the Minister commit to reinstating this funding as a matter of urgency?
It is very simple. What we have learned in the past two years is that health is a global issue. It is not just right to support worldwide health initiatives, but it benefits us too. When it comes to covid, we have seen that a global pandemic is exactly that: global.