It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. In March 2021, a group of world leaders announced an initiative for a new treaty—a convention on pandemic preparedness and response. The initiative was taken to the World Health Organisation to be negotiated, drafted and debated by a newly established intergovernmental negotiation body. The petition that resulted in today’s debate was signed by over 156,000 people, of whom 441 are my constituents—just under 0.4% of my constituents. That is the third highest number; only Wells and Wealden constituencies have a higher number of residents who signed the petition. They want the Government to commit not to sign any international treaty on pandemic prevention and preparedness established by the WHO unless it is approved through a public referendum. It is important that their concerns are listened to and answers provided.
The idea behind the treaty is to ensure that there is a more joined-up approach to pandemics in future. There is no question but that the world will face other pandemics and health emergencies in the future. It is clear from covid-19 that countries need to address those threats together.
Covid-19 has affected each and every one of us; no region or country has been spared. According to The BMJ, in less than two years covid-19 infected more than 240 million people, with 5 million lives lost. States agreed that the world must be better prepared to predict, prevent, detect, assess and effectively respond to pandemics in a highly co-ordinated fashion. The covid-19 pandemic has been a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everybody is safe. That means that everyone across the world, no matter how poor or how challenging a nation state is, needs access to safe, affordable and effective vaccines, and to medicines and diagnostics for future pandemics.
So far, so good, but there is a claim that a legally binding WHO pandemic treaty will give the WHO the authority during a pandemic to trump sovereignty and control UK policies, including on lockdowns, school closures and vaccines. If true, that would be a valid concern for every country. Will the Minister reassure my constituents who signed the petition that the treaty is voluntary, that it does not overrule the UK’s ability to legislate for our own pandemic-related policies, and that no UK sovereignty would be ceded at any time to the WHO?
There are also claims that the WHO has continued to develop two international legal instruments intended to have force under international law, with the aim of increasing its own global authority in managing health emergencies, including pandemics. It is claimed that the two instruments work in synergy, with the international health regulations amendments laying out new and specific powers and processes desired by the WHO and its sponsors during health emergencies and extending the context in which such powers can be used, and the treaty providing the terms for the administration, financing and governance of the powers and processes underpinning the enlarged international health regulations.
While the Government have so far expressed support for the treaty and said that they are
“actively shaping its design to ensure it improves how the world prevents, prepares for, and responds to future disease outbreaks of pandemic potential”,
they have made it clear that
“the key will be to ensure the final text is clearly in the UK national interest”.
Negotiations on the draft text continue, including on key international principles such as human rights, sovereignty, transparency and accountability. Will the Minister please confirm and provide assurance to my constituents who signed the petition that no UK Government will sign any legal instrument, treaty or convention that will fundamentally and detrimentally change the relationship between the World Health Organisation and its member states, including the UK?
When a draft treaty is finalised—if ever, as it will need the agreement of nearly 200 countries—it is vital that the why, when, how and what of the treaty and whether it is actually needed are debated, considered and scrutinised by UK elected representatives. Does strengthening global health governance require a treaty? Are there more effective ways to strengthen global health governance after the covid-19 disaster? We must look at those questions. What we must be wary of, however, is conspiracy theories distorting the facts and scaring people. Transparency of debate is therefore needed to squash those conspiracy theories, to provide proper scrutiny, and to put people’s minds at rest.