Livestream Recording 18th December 2023
On December 18, 2023 the UK Parliament debated the WHO’s proposed Pandmic Treaty and new amendments to the WHO’s existing International Health Regulations. The debate came about because of a petition drive initiated by Dr. Tess Lawrie which received over 100,000 signatures last summer, obliging the Parliament to take on this discussion.
Members of parliament are very upfront about what the WHO is trying to do, and furthermore point out how the WHO has misrepresented its intentions.
International Health Regulations 2005
Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 635904, relating to the International Health Regulations 2005.
In March 2021, a group of world leaders including the then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an initiative for a new treaty on pandemic preparedness and response. The initiative was taken to the World Health Organisation and will be negotiated, drafted and debated by a newly established, intergovernmental negotiation body. This is the second time that the Petitions Committee has scheduled this issue for debate. In April this year, a petition that called for the Government to
“commit to not signing any international treaty on pandemic prevention and preparedness established by the World Health Organization (WHO), unless this is approved through a public referendum”
was debated after it reached the threshold of 156,086 signatures. Today’s e-petition calls on Parliament to
“Hold a parliamentary vote on whether to reject amendments to the IHR 2005”.
The Government have responded to the petition, explaining that the UK supports strengthening the IHR and the amendment process.
Having met the petitioner, I know that she would like the Minister to address the concerns of the petitioners in his response, specifically which amendments, if accepted, would require changes to UK domestic legislation; who represents the UK; if the information will be publicly available; the Government’s position on the amendments that change language in the regulations from “may” to “shall”; and if the UK will vote against those changes. What is the UK’s position on whether the regulations should be binding or non-binding, and has it proposed any amendments? I hope that the Minister will be able to address those issues in his remarks when we get to that stage of the debate.
In the March 2021 joint article, the group of leaders said:
“The main goal of this treaty would be to foster an all of government and all of society approach, strengthening national, regional and global capacities and resilience to future pandemics. This includes greatly enhancing international co-operation to improve, for example, alert systems, data-sharing, research and local, regional and global production and distribution of medical and public health counter-measures such as vaccines, medicines, diagnostics and personal protective equipment.”
Given the weekend news coverage of the fallout from some of the challenges faced in the procurement of PPE, it is perhaps timely that we debate the petition today. When the next pandemic happens, I hope that any future Government will have learned the lessons from the past.
On specific questions of UK sovereignty and amendments relating to restrictive measures, the UK Government have explained in their response to the petition that
“we have been clear that the UK will not sign up to any IHR amendments that would compromise the UK’s ability to take domestic decisions on national public health measures. There are currently no plans to hold a vote on IHR amendments. Should the UK Government wish to accept an IHR amendment, then depending on the content of the respective IHR amendment, changes to domestic law considered necessary or appropriate to reflect obligations under the IHR amendment, may be required. The Government would prepare such draft legislation before Parliament in the usual way. In all circumstances, the sovereignty of the UK Parliament would remain unchanged, and the UK would remain in control of any future domestic decisions about national public health measures.”
Finally, I take the opportunity to thank all our healthcare workers who worked through the pandemic. As we go into the Christmas period, many of them will be working while we are enjoying turkey dinners with our families, so I pay tribute to their commitment and to all others who work in our healthcare systems. The pandemic affected us all differently, and I hope that in this season of good will we are mindful of all those who are more vulnerable than ourselves. With that, and on behalf of the Petitions Committee, I thank all members of the public who have engaged with e-petitions, including this one in 2023. I look forward to hearing the well-informed contributions of hon. Members.
Dame Maria Miller (in the Chair)
Before I call the first speaker, I remind Members that if they wish to contribute, they should bob. I remind those sitting in the Public Gallery that there should be no applause and no photographs at any time.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con)
It is a pleasure as always to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for moving the motion and agreeing to the debate in her role as Chair of the Petitions Committee—it is very much appreciated. I also thank the 116,391 people who signed the petition, including 189 of my Shipley constituents, which helped secure this important debate.
In preparing for today’s debate, I looked back at the contributions made in April when another petition on this topic was debated here in Westminster Hall, as the hon. Member mentioned in her opening remarks. I have to say that I was disappointed by some of the rhetoric, when valid concerns were dismissed as an “overreaction and hysteria”. It is clear that this is—quite rightly, in my opinion—an important issue for the public. We can see that that is the case from not just the full Gallery, but the large numbers signing the petitions.
So what are we dealing with here? We have two international legal instruments, both designed to increase the WHO’s authority in managing health emergencies. The first concerns the amendments to the existing International Health Regulations 2005—the IHR—and the second is the World Health Organisation’s new pandemic treaty, which would support the bureaucracy and financing of the expanded IHR. Both instruments are designed to transfer decision-making powers to the World Health Organisation, with the admirable aim, no doubt, of improving how the world prevents and better prepares for disease outbreaks. However, in practice, what is being proposed could have a huge and detrimental impact on all parts of society and on our sovereignty. If the IHR amendments go through, countries will have undertaken to follow recommendations, not merely consider them: it is proposed to remove the word “non-binding” from article 1, while the regulations in article 42 are to be
“initiated and completed without delay”
by member states. Therefore, we can only assume that the intention behind the amendments is for them to be binding under international law.
I do not wish to over-egg the nature of the proposals, but I cannot help but be concerned by the thought of removing the word “non-binding”. There is much in the existing IHR that would suspend fundamental human and bioethical rights, such as requirements for vaccinations and medical examinations, and implementing quarantine or other health measures for suspect persons—in other words, mandates and lockdowns. It is all there in black and white under article 18. We may have become only too mindful of the harms of lockdowns, and I am sure that hon. Members will be aware of the latest findings published by the Centre for Social Justice about the harms caused by lockdowns. That is not to mention the non-existent science used to enforce wearing a face mask—the covid inquiry has also uncovered the fact that that was based on absolutely no science whatsoever.
At the debate in April, we were told by the then Minister that it is “simply not the case” that
“the instrument will undermine UK sovereignty and give WHO powers over national public health measures”.—[Official Report, 17 April 2023; Vol. 731, c. 34WH.]
I think it is worth revisiting this question, because I am not clear how national and parliamentary sovereignty can be upheld if the proposals are agreed. I draw attention to draft new article 13A, which calls for member states to
“undertake to follow WHO’s recommendations”
and to recognise the World Health Organisation not as an organisation under the control of countries, but rather as the
“coordinating authority of international public health response during public health Emergency of International Concern”.
John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the lack of accountability? We are having an extensive and public examination of the Government’s response to covid, but there is no comparable examination of the important decisions and advice that the WHO offered to the whole world, and it probably had more influence.
My right hon. Friend is, as ever, absolutely right. We should all be concerned about that and concerned that we do not end up falling into the same problems as we have had in the past, being in a position where there is nothing we can do about it and sleepwalking into a disaster.
We are talking about a top-down approach to global public health hardwired into international law. At the top of that top-down approach we have our single source of truth on all things pandemic: the World Health Organisation’s director general, who it appears will have the sole authority to decide when and where these regulations will be deployed. Let us not forget that the director general is appointed by an opaque, non-democratic process—and I think that is being rather generous.
Rather worryingly, in their response to this petition the Government have said they are
“supporting the process of agreeing targeted amendments of the IHR as a means of strengthening preparedness for and response to future health emergencies; including through increasing compliance and implementation of the IHR”.
They have also previously said that they support
“a new legally-binding instrument”
—that certainly sounds like a threat to parliamentary sovereignty to me. Will the Minister commit today to laying those plans before Parliament so they can be properly debated, and if I had my way, robustly rejected?
It is also vital to take a step back and understand what is driving this pandemic preparedness agenda. At a recent meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on pandemic response and recovery, Dr David Bell gave a briefing on how the World Health Organisation, with the backing of the World Bank, says these amendments are the only way to prepare for future pandemics that it says are getting more frequent, and where there is more risk from zoonotic—animal to human—spread. The reality is that the WHO’s figures do not tell the whole story. When we take into account population growth, significant natural pandemics are rare events. We also have to take into account that there has been a huge expansion of tests and genome sequencing over the last few decades. The invention of polymerase chain reaction testing, for example, has had a massive impact on the detection rate of those outbreaks that the World Health Organisation is now using to justify its agenda.
Since the Spanish flu over 100 years ago, we have only had two pandemics above the average yearly seasonal influenza mortality rates, thanks to antibiotics and advances in modern medical care. We hear a lot about disease outbreaks that actually have low mortality burdens when compared to other public health threats: for example, in 2003, SARS-CoV-1—severe acute respiratory syndrome —had the equivalent disease burden of about five hours of tuberculosis. Funnily enough, in its 2019 pandemic influenza recommendations, the World Health Organisation itself could find no evidence that serious zoonotic pandemics were increasing. What is undoubtedly increasing are the eye-watering costs of managing pandemics, with vast sums of taxpayer money being wasted on poorly conceived initiatives, such as locking down the economy for two years.
It seems to me that the World Health Organisation has no need to rush any of this—we have time to reassess and get it right—and it seems I am not the only one to think that. In recent weeks, we have seen signs that some countries, including Estonia, Slovakia and New Zealand, are looking to question the proposals. It is not clear if any member states have submitted formal notices to reject them and opt out, but New Zealand does appear to have lodged a reservation to allow the incoming Government more time to consider whether the amendments are consistent with a national interest test required by New Zealand law. That is entirely sensible, and I would like to see our own Government take a pause to apply some critical thinking to this situation before blindly supporting the World Health Organisation’s installation as our new global public health power.
It is absolutely essential that the Government make a clear and unambiguous promise that they will neither support nor abide by anything that in any way undermines our national sovereignty. We have not spent so many years battling to get out of the frying pan of the EU to jump straight back into the fire with the equally unaccountable, undemocratic and hopeless World Health Organisation.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Reclaim)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I, too, thank the 116,000 members of the public who signed this public petition so that we can have this important debate today. I would also like to thank Dr David Bell—someone who actually worked for the WHO for a number of years—for his briefings to me, and also the Swiss lawyer Philipp Kruse for his contributions to the information I have with me today.
I would like to start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). Both he and I spoke in the public petition debate on 17 April this year when we considered the pandemic treaty. It is impossible to consider either the pandemic treaty or the amendments to the international health regulations in isolation; they are two linked instruments of the WHO, and they need to be considered in parallel. My opening question is this: why does the WHO make false claims regarding proposals to seize states’ sovereignty?
In referring to the WHO’s new pandemic agreement and the proposed amendments to the international health regulations currently being negotiated, the director general of the WHO has stated:
“No country will cede any sovereignty to WHO.”
His statements are clear, unequivocal, and also wholly inconsistent with the text he is referring to. I remind the Chamber that this is the unelected, unaccountable, non-taxpaying, and immune-from-prosecution-due-to-diplomatic-immunity director general of the WHO. All employees of the United Nations and the WHO enjoy those particular perks.
Any rational examination of the text in question shows that the documents propose a transfer of decision-making power to the WHO regarding basic aspects of societal function that countries undertake to enact. The WHO director general will have the sole authority to decide when and where they are required, and the proposals are intended to be binding under international law. Continued claims that sovereignty is not lost, echoed by politicians in this House, other elected assemblies, and of course the media, therefore raise very important questions concerning motivations, competence and ethics.
The intent of the texts is a transfer of decision making, currently vested in nations and individuals, to the WHO when its director general decides that there is a threat of a significant disease outbreak or other health emergency likely to cross multiple national borders. It is very unusual for nations to undertake to follow external entities regarding the basic rights and healthcare of their citizens, more so when that has a major economic and geopolitical implication. The question of whether sovereignty is being transferred, and the legal status of such an agreement, is therefore of vital importance, particularly to legislators of democratic states such as ourselves. We have an absolute duty to be sure of our ground, and I systematically examine that ground here today.
Amending the 2005 international health regulations may be a straightforward way to quickly deploy and enforce what appears to be the new normal for health control measures that we have seen implemented since the covid-19 pandemic. The current text applies to virtually the entire global population, counting 196 states, including all 194 WHO member states. Approval may or may not be required by a formal vote of the World Health Assembly: the recent 2022 amendment was adopted through consensus. If the same approval mechanism were to be used in May 2024, many countries, and indeed the public, might remain unaware of the broad scope of the new text and its implications for national and individual sovereignty. That is why today’s debate is so important.
The IHR set recommendations under a treaty process that currently has force under international law. Those recommendations seek to provide the WHO with some moral authority to co-ordinate and lead responses when an international health emergency occurs, such as the pandemic. Most are non-binding, and those regulations contain very specific examples of measures that the WHO can currently recommend. That includes article 18, under which it can
“require medical examinations; review proof of vaccination or other prophylaxis; require vaccination or other prophylaxis; place suspect persons under public health observation; implement quarantine or other health measures for suspect persons; implement isolation and treatment where necessary of affected persons; implement tracing of contacts of suspect or affected persons; refuse entry of suspect and affected persons; refuse entry of unaffected persons to affected areas; and implement exit screening and/or restrictions on persons from affected areas.”
When implemented together, those measures have generally been referred to since 2020 as lockdowns and mandates—“lockdown” was previously a term reserved for people incarcerated as criminals. It removes basic, universally accepted human rights. Such measures were previously considered by the WHO itself to be detrimental to public health.
However, since 2020, it has become the default standard for public health authorities to manage epidemics, despite its contradictions to multiple stipulations of the universal declaration of human rights—the UDHR. I will remind the Chamber of those rights. Under article 2,
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind”,
including, under article 9, no arbitrary detention. Protected under article 12,
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence”.
Under article 13,
“Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state”
“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
Under article 19,
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Under article 20,
“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
Under article 21,
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”.
Under article 23,
“Everyone has the right to work”.
Under article 26,
“Everyone has the right to education.”
Under article 28,
“Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”
Under article 30,
“Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group of person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”
These UDHR stipulations are the basis of the modern concept of individual sovereignty and the relationship between authorities and their populations. Considered the highest codification of the rights and freedoms of individuals in the 20th century, they may soon be dismantled behind closed doors in a meeting room in Geneva.
The proposed amendments will change the “recommendations” of the current documentation to requirements through three mechanisms. The first is the removal the term “non-binding” from article 1, as we have already heard from the hon. Member for Shipley. Second is the insertion under new article 13A the phrase that “Member States” will
“undertake to follow WHO’s recommendations”
and recognise WHO not as an organisation under the control of countries, but as the “co-ordinating authority”. New article 13A states:
“States Parties recognize WHO as the guidance and coordinating authority of international public health response during public health Emergency of International Concern and undertake to follow WHO’s recommendations in their international public health response.”
As article 18 makes clear, these include multiple actions directly restricting individual liberty. If the transfer of decision-making power—sovereignty—is not intended here, then the current status of the IHR as “recommendations” could remain and countries would not be undertaking to follow the WHO’s requirements.
Thirdly, under article 42, “State Parties” undertake to enact what previously were merely recommendations, without delay, including requirements of WHO regarding non-state entities under their jurisdiction. Article 42 states:
“Health measures taken pursuant to these Regulations, including the recommendations made under Article 15 and 16, shall be initiated and completed without delay by all State Parties, and applied in a transparent, equitable and non-discriminatory manner. State Parties shall also take measures to ensure Non-State Actors operating in their respective territories comply with such measures.”
“Non-State Actors” means private businesses, charities, and individuals. In other words, everyone and everything comes under the control of the WHO, once the director general declares a public health emergency of international concern.
Articles 15 and 16 mentioned here allow the WHO to require a state to provide resources,
“health products, technologies and knowhow”
and to allow the WHO to deploy “personnel” into the country—that is, it will have control over entry across national borders for whoever it chooses. The WHO also repeats the requirement for the country to require the implementation of “medical countermeasures”—testing, vaccines, quarantine—on their population where the WHO demands it.
Of note, the proposed article 1 amendment to remove the term “non-binding” is actually redundant if new article 13A and/or the changes to article 42 remain in place. That can, and likely will, be removed in the final text, giving the appearance of a compromise without actually changing the thrust of the transfer of the sovereignty, because of the two other articles.
All of the public health measures in article 18, and additional ones such as limiting freedom of speech to reduce public exposure to alternative viewpoints—as annex 1, new article 5(e) says, “Counter misinformation and disinformation”—clash directly with the UDHR. Although freedom of speech is currently exclusively for national authorities to decide, and its restriction is generally seen as being negative and abusive, United Nations institutions including the WHO have been advocating for censoring unofficial views in order to protect the people from what they call “information integrity”. No doubt, if these amendments were in place, I would not be allowed to give this speech and, if I was, it would not be allowed to be reported in the mainstream media or even on social media.
It seems outrageous, from a human rights perspective, that the amendments will allow the WHO to dictate to countries to require individual medical examinations and vaccinations whenever it declares a pandemic. While the Nuremberg code and the declaration of Helsinki refer specifically to human experimentation in cases such as clinical trials and vaccines, and the universal declaration on bioethics and human rights refers specifically to the provider-patient relationship, they can reasonably be extended to public health measures that impose restrictions or changes to human behaviour and specifically to any measures requiring injection, medication or medical examination, which involve a direct provider-person interaction.
If vaccines or drugs are still under trial and not fully tested, the issue of being subject to an experiment is also real. There is a very clear intent to employ the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations’ 100-day vaccine programme, which, by definition, cannot complete meaningful safety and efficacy trials within the timespan. As we know, the covid-19 vaccines are still experimental, years on from their first introduction, because they are still under emergency use authorisation. Forced examination or medication outside of a situation where the recipient is clearly not mentally competent to be able to comply or reject, when provided with the information, is unethical. Requiring compliance to access what are considered basic human rights under the UDHR would constitute coercion. If that does not fit with the WHO’s definition of infringement of individual sovereignty or of national sovereignty, then the director general and his supporters need to publicly explain what definition of sovereignty they are using.
The proposed pandemic agreement will set humanity into a new era that is strangely organised around pandemics: pre-pandemic, pandemic and inter-pandemic times. A new governance structure, under WHO auspices, will oversee the IHR amendments and related initiatives. It will rely on new funding requirements, including the WHO’s ability to demand additional funding and materials from countries and to run a supply network to support its work in health emergencies. That is under article 12, which states that
“in the event of a pandemic, real-time access by WHO to a minimum of 20% (10% as a donation and 10% at affordable prices to WHO) of the production of safe, efficacious and effective pandemic-related products for distribution based on public health risks and needs, with the understanding that each Party that has manufacturing facilities that produce pandemic-related products in its jurisdiction shall take all necessary steps to facilitate the export of such pandemic-related products, in accordance with timetables to be agreed between WHO and manufacturers”
and article 20(1)(e):
“provide support and assistance to other Parties, upon request, to facilitate the containment of spill-over at the source.”
The entire structure will be financed by a new funding stream that is separate from WHO funding and an additional requirement on taxpayers over current national commitments. Article 20(2) states that the funding will also include an endowment of
“voluntary…contributions from all relevant sectors that benefit from international work to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response; and…donations from philanthropic organizations”.
I wonder who those organisations referred to in article 20(2)(b) might be; perhaps someone who made a lot of money out of mRNA vaccination.
This is taxation without representation. Currently, countries decide on their level of foreign aid on the basis of national priorities, apart from limited funding that they may already have agreed to allocate to organisations such as the WHO under existing obligations or treaties. The proposed agreement is remarkable not just in greatly increasing the amount of money that countries must give as part of treaty agreements but in setting up a parallel funding structure disconnected from other disease priorities, which is quite the opposite of previous ideas on integrated health policy. It also gives power to external groups, which are not directly accountable, to demand or acquire further resources whenever they deem it necessary.
In a further encroachment into what is normally within the legal jurisdiction of nation states, the agreement will require countries to establish, under article 15:
“no-fault vaccine injury compensation mechanism(s)”.
That will consecrate effective immunity for pharmaceutical companies for harm to citizens resulting from use of their products that the WHO recommends under an emergency use authorisation—that will be embedded; that will be the norm—or indeed that the WHO requires countries to mandate on their citizens.
As is becoming increasingly acceptable for those in power, ratifying countries will agree to limit the right of their public to voice opposition to the WHO’s measures and claims regarding such an emergency, under article 18, in order to:
“combat false, misleading, misinformation or disinformation, including through effective international collaboration and cooperation”.
As we have seen during the covid-19 response, the definition of “misleading” information can depend on political or commercial expediency, including factual information on vaccine efficacy and safety and orthodox immunology that would impair the sale of health commodities. This is why open democracies put such emphasis on defending free speech, even at the risk of sometimes being misleading. In signing this agreement, Governments will be agreeing to abrogate that principle regarding their own citizens when instructed to do so by the WHO.
The scope of this proposed agreement and the IHR amendments is broader than pandemics, greatly expanding the scope under which a transfer of decision-making powers can be demanded by the WHO. Other environmental threats to health, such as changes in climate, can be declared emergencies at the director general’s discretion, if broad definitions of a One Health policy are adopted as recommended.
It is difficult to think of another international instrument where such powers over national resources are passed to an unelected external organisation, and it is even more challenging to envisage how this can be seen as anything other than a loss of sovereignty. The only justification for this claim would appear to be if the draft agreement is to be signed on the basis of deceit and that there is no intention for us to treat it in any other way than as an irrelevant piece of paper or as something that would perhaps only apply to less powerful states than the United Kingdom—possibly as a colonialist tool. I have spoken at length to elected representatives in Africa and urged them to urge their elected assemblies to reject this power-grab by the unelected and unaccountable WHO.
Both texts are intended to be legally binding; the IHR already has such status. Therefore, the impact of the proposed changes on the need for new acceptance by countries are complicated national jurisdictional issues. There is a current mechanism for rejection of new amendments. However, unless a high number of countries actively voice their opposition and rejections, the adoption of the current published version, dated February 2023, will likely lead to a future shadowed by the permanent risks of the WHO’s lockdown and lockstep diktats.
The proposed pandemic agreement is also clearly intended to be legally binding. The WHO discusses this issue, and it has been supported by the International Negotiating Body and various declarations of the G20.
As I have said, the IHR already has standing under international law. While seeking such status, WHO officials, who previously described the proposed agreement as a “treaty”, now insist that neither instrument impacts sovereignty. The implication is that it is states’ representatives at the World Health Assembly who will agree the transfer, not the WHO itself, as if that makes any difference to the UK’s loss of sovereignty.
The WHO’s position raises a real question of whether its leadership is truly ignorant of what is being proposed or is actively seeking to mislead countries and the public in order to increase the probability of acceptance. The latest version, dated 30 October 2023, requires 40 ratifications for the future agreement to enter into force, after a two-thirds vote in favour within the WHA. Opposition from a considerable number of countries will therefore be needed to derail the project. Because it is backed by powerful Governments and institutions, financial mechanisms, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and bilateral aid, are likely to make opposition from lower-income countries extremely difficult to sustain. Much of the world therefore looks to our Parliament to step up to the plate and protect democracy around the world.
The relevant question regarding the two WHO instruments should be not whether sovereignty is threatened, but why democratic states would forfeit any sovereignty to an organisation that is significantly funded by and bound to obey the dictates of corporations and self-proclaimed philanthropists, and jointly governed by member states half of which are not even open and transparent democracies. Why would we do that? If sovereignty is being knowingly forfeited by Governments, without the knowledge and consent of their peoples and based on the false claims of Governments and the WHO, the implications are extremely serious. It would imply that leaders were working directly against the interests of their people. Most countries have specific fundamental laws for dealing with that practice, so it is important that those defending these projects to either explain their definitions of sovereignty and democratic process, or explicitly seek informed public consent.
The other question to be asked is why public health authorities and the media are repeating the WHO’s assurances of the benign nature of the pandemic instruments. They assert that claims of reduced sovereignty are misinformation or disinformation, which they assert elsewhere are major killers of mankind. Although such claims are somewhat ludicrous and appear intended to denigrate dissenters, such as myself, the WHO is clearly guilty of the very crime of which it accuses others. If its leadership cannot demonstrate how its claims regarding these pandemic instruments are not deliberately misleading, its leadership would appear ethically compelled to resign from their positions, and we should defund them.
The WHO lists three major pandemics of the last century: the influenza outbreaks in late 1950s and 1960s, and the covid-19 pandemic. The first two killed fewer than die each year from tuberculosis. The reported deaths from covid-19 never reached the level of cancer or cardiovascular disease, and remain almost irrelevant in low-income countries compared with endemic infectious diseases including tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS. To put the pandemics in perspective, no other non-influenza outbreak recorded by the WHO that fits the definition of a pandemic—that is, the rapid spread across international borders for a limited time of a pathogen that does not normally cause significant harm—has caused greater mortality in total than a few days of tuberculosis, which kills about 4,000 a day, or more life years lost than a few days of malaria, which sadly kills 1,500 children under five every day.
If our Government, the Opposition parties and their supporters in the public health community consider that the powers currently vested in national jurisdictions should be given over to external bodies on the basis of that level of recorded harm, it would be best that we have a public conversation as to whether this is a sufficient basis for abandoning democratic ideals in favour of a more fascist and authoritarian approach. After all, we are talking about restricting basic human rights that are essential for any democracy to function.
John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
I hope that the Minister will listen very carefully to the debate and the petitioners, because it would be a grave error were the Government to sign a treaty that gives away important powers over the future conduct of health policy. It is wrong to give to the WHO the sole power to decide when there is an emergency, and it is wrong to give away our powers of self-decision were such an emergency to be visited upon us.
We are, of course, members of the WHO, and I think we all agree that we should continue to be members of the WHO. We should share our information; we should draw on its research, and it will draw on research and knowledge in this country, where there is much medical and pharmaceutical company expertise, and together, as collaborators, we may get to better answers in the future. However, it would be quite wrong to vest the power of decision in people so far away from our own country who are not in full knowledge of the local circumstances.
Before any such power is vested in the WHO, there should be a proper inquiry and debate about how it performed over the course of the most recent covid pandemic. Why, for example, did the WHO seemingly concentrate on vaccines, rather than other methods of handling the problem? Why was there the delay or difficulty in testing existing drugs, which had already passed proper safety procedures and might have had beneficial or easing effects for those who got the condition? Why was more work not done on use of ultraviolet light behind the scenes in airflow systems, to clean up air when circulating? Why was more consideration not given to isolation hospitals and health centres, given that, unfortunately, quite a lot of the disease was spread through health premises. With the use of isolation, other healthcare could have continued during the course of covid treatment without so much cross-contamination within general hospitals. Why were there not recommendations and advice on isolation?
Why was there not more careful consideration of whether it would be better to concentrate on ensuring that those who were most vulnerable were protected from the presence of the disease as much as possible, rather than trying to lock down whole populations and then having to make exemptions so that we could keep the lights on and some food could be delivered to people’s homes? There was something rather arbitrary about who was allowed to go to work and who was not.
Why was more work not done by the WHO on cleaning up the data? We were given comparisons between countries, but when we looked beneath the data, we discovered that those countries were using very different definitions of what a covid death was. In individual countries, under the impact of the wave of the disease, there were often great difficulties in carrying out proper diagnosis of whether someone did have covid, or whether other medical problems that the person was suffering from were more likely to have caused the death. Some countries took a very tough line, saying that anybody with covid died of covid, even though they might have had lots of other conditions, so those countries had big figures, while other countries took a rather narrow view and said, “Well, this person was in their mid-80s and they were suffering from another a number of other conditions that might have led to the difficulties.”
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concerns that the WHO refuses to conduct any review of the recommendations it issued during the covid-19 pandemic, so sure is it that its advice and recommendations were absolutely perfect? If we sign up to these instruments, we will only get more of the same.
That is one of my worries. We need more transparency, debate, discussion and challenge of those in the well-paid positions at the WHO, so that science can advance.
As I understand scientific method, it is not choosing a limited number of scientists and believing everything they say; it is having a population of talented and able scientists who challenge each other, because then we get more truth out of the challenge and exchange of ideas. We do not want an international body saying, “There’s only one way to look at this problem or to think about it.” We need that process of challenge, and we need it to be an accelerated process. When we have an urgent and immediate need of better medicines, vaccines, procedures and approaches to lockdown or non-lockdown, that is surely the time for healthy debate, constant review and sufficient humility by all of us who venture opinions, because time and events could disprove them very quickly. If that happens, we should learn from the process and be honest about it, rather than saying that we were right all along and there was only one possible approach.
That is all I wish to say, that I think we need much more accountability, exposure and proper debate. Yes, the WHO can make an important contribution and can be a forum for scientists, pharmaceutical companies and others who will be part of the solution should we get some future wave of infection, but please, Government, do not trust it with everything. Do not ensure that future Ministers are unable to act responsibly and well in response to public opinion and to medical opinion within our own country. Do not sell us short, because that would also sell the world short. This country has a lot to offer in these fields, and it will be best if we allow open debate, proper review and serious challenge.
Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Dame Maria.
I begin by declaring an interest. My wife, Olivia, works as a senior radiographer in the national health service. Throughout the pandemic, she continued to report for duty at her hospital, including, on occasion, knowingly treating patients who were covid positive. I married a good and brave woman, Dame Maria. She does not know I am about to say this: I want to pay tribute to her and all her colleagues in the national health service, who put their lives on the line to save those of many others. They deserve our admiration and thanks from their Parliament.
I have received quite a few emails from constituents on this issue. I have also had strong personal representations from Councillor Ian Ward, who ably represents Lodge ward on Rochford District Council, who feels very strongly—take my word for it, Dame Maria—about all this and has made his views very clear to me as his MP.
For the record, I am all for better sharing of information and intelligence between nations to try to prevent the spread of any future pandemic. Would that the Chinese had done more, and more quickly, to warn the rest of the world about what was coming from Wuhan. I reluctantly accepted the need for an initial lockdown, but I confess that as time wore on, I became increasingly uneasy at the effects of the lockdown, not just economically but socially, and not least the impact on people’s mental health. We are still seeing some of those effects playing out in our schools today, as my headteachers tell me when I visit local schools.
I am now concerned about the potential amendments to the International Health Regulations 2005 being brought about at the behest of the World Health Organisation, not least because the WHO will be given extremely strong powers in any future pandemic. As one constituent put it in her email:
“Almost no-one who is informed believes the…WHO performed anything other than appallingly during Covid, with disastrous results. Yet there seems to be no attempt to reform this unelected, unaccountable organisation, which British taxpayers fund in the millions. On the contrary, a drive is evident to give the totally undemocratic WHO ever more power, ever more of our money and ever less scrutiny.”
That was her opinion, but I think my constituent has a point.
I understand that on 31 May 2022, the delegates of the WHO formally adopted five new amendments to the international health regulations. I further understand that those amendments come into force under international law for all member states within 24 months—that is, by 31 May 2024—unless those member states choose proactively to opt out of them. Of the five new amendments, there is one of particular concern as it would severely compromise the ability of the public to lobby politicians to reject future amendments by reducing the time available before they might come into force. That amendment to article 59 would significantly reduce the time allowed for a country’s leadership to reject IHR amendments adopted at future World Health Assemblies from 18 months to 10 months.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Forgive me, but the hon. Gentleman spoke at some length; perhaps he will let some of the rest of us have a go.
Up to 300 amendments to the international health regulations are being negotiated and finalised, to be voted on in May 2024 at the 77th World Health Assembly. The amendments being negotiated include: first, amendments to make WHO emergency guidance legally binding—it is currently only advisory—on member states; and secondly, amendments that would empower the WHO director general to single-handedly declare a public health emergency of international concern, giving this unelected, unaccountable individual unprecedented levels of power to dictate UK public health policy and to restrict fundamental freedoms.
Is it not even more extraordinary that that power would be given to that person, given that, as I understand it, the UK voted against his becoming the director general of the World Health Organisation in the first place, and he was China’s man for the job. Does that not make it even more extraordinary that the UK would want him to have those powers?
It does, although some people favoured by China have been doing very well lately. None the less, I take my hon. Friend’s point.
Thirdly, there are amendments to implement an international global health certification system enabling nations to enforce travel restrictions using tools such as vaccine certificates, passenger locator forms and travel health declarations—all tied, potentially, to a personal QR code. Fourthly, there are amendments that would increase censorship of dissenting voices by mandating systematic global collaboration to counter dissent to official governmental or WHO guidance.
Taken together, the proposed amendments empower the WHO to issue requirements for the UK to mandate highly restrictive measures, such as lockdowns, masks, quarantines, travel restrictions and medication of individuals, including vaccination, once a PHEIC has been declared by the WHO. That is something we should all be very concerned about. We as parliamentarians are guardians of the country’s liberty, so we need to be very anxious about that.
I have been known to raise concerns about the loss of our sovereignty in Parliament before. Section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 states that the will of Parliament is sovereign—and so it should remain. I have a key question for the Minister—I have known him for years; he is a decent man. Will he take the trouble to answer this question very specifically in his wind-up? Otherwise, I will intervene on him. My key question is: could the amendments, even potentially, allow the World Health Organisation to put this country into lockdown without our approval? Yes or no?
Danny Kruger (Devizes) (Con)
I am very pleased to be able to speak in this debate. I thank all the petitioners and members of the public who are interested in the debate, and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) who introduced it. It is worrying that so few Members are present. I am always proud to act in concert with my band of brothers here—we happy few who seem to fight on multiple fronts. This is a fringe issue in Parliament, as demonstrated by the empty Benches, but significant numbers of the public have a real interest in this topic, so what is going on?
I think the explanations are partly that it is a complex matter. It requires significant delving into pretty abstruse documentation and websites. As the debate goes on, it is not always thrilling. It is also that we debate issues of principle, such as the abstractions of sovereignty and individual rights, that often fail to get traction in the media. Although occasionally generating headlines, they do not generate proper attention in Parliament or the media.
The fundamental reason why the topic and the proposed regulations and treaty from the World Health Organisation have not generated the sort of disquiet that we few Members feel among our colleagues, the wider public and the media is that we want, as individuals and citizens, to trust in the Government when it comes to healthcare. We really do. That is why we have such a commitment to the NHS in our country. We want the state to be trusted, authoritative and capable when it comes to our health. We instinctively recoil at suggestions that there is a problem when it comes to the management of healthcare, and yet, as we have heard today from colleagues who put the details very well—I will not reiterate the points that have been made—there is clearly a difficulty, a challenge, a problem with the proposed regulations and treaty.
It is suggested by the World Health Organisation and the Governments who are contributing to the design of the regulations and the treaty that the WHO should move from being responsible for identifying pandemics on behalf of countries, and towards taking responsibility for co-ordinating the response to pandemics. That is an enormously significant change. It would co-ordinate the response of nation states and how they managed their health care. We have heard expressed very well the threat that that represents; it could mean enforced mandates, forced lockdowns and so on. I echo the call on the Minister to address the question whether the World Health Organisation will be able to impose a lockdown, or any other intervention, without the consent of Parliament.
I would also like the Minister to reflect on the provision in the proposed regulations that suggests that the World Health Organisation would require countries to tackle misinformation and disinformation. We must remember that in January 2020, the organisation aspiring to this power denied that there was human-to-human transmission of covid-19. For many months, it denied the possibility that the virus had a human origin and originated in a Wuhan facility. This is the organisation that we propose giving the power to intervene in national debates, and to close down discussion about the origins and appropriate response to pandemics under the guise of tackling misinformation and disinformation.
We should be concerned about the value of the World Health Organisation, given its record, and we should, I am afraid, have the same scepticism about our Government’s role. The trust that we all desperately want to have in healthcare has been badly tested by the experience of recent years. I echo many of the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) about radicalisation; we both experienced that radicalisation over the course of the covid experience. We went from a position of trust in the state to profound scepticism.
I want to call attention to a new book that has come out, to which I contributed the afterword.
Dame Maria Miller (in the Chair)
Order. I do not think that we do advertising in here.
Okay. Forgive me. I will not advertise the book, although I derive no benefit from it, I should emphasise. It is written by the campaigners UsforThem, who did such good work in calling attention to the effect of the lockdowns on children, and who became radicalised through the experience of covid. UsforThem has written a very good book about the lack of accountability for the response to covid. I do not share some of its concerns about particular decisions made by particular officials or Ministers, but I absolutely share its concerns about the failure of accountability in the system as a whole.
The inquiry into the whole covid episode, which we are all watching, is performing a fairly useful function in identifying misdemeanours, confusions, and, in a rather whodunnit way, which Ministers, officials and advisers deserve individual blame. What we are really getting out of it, however, is evidence that the system as a whole failed. There is no point in identifying the culpability of individuals when the fundamental problem that the inquiry, and the experience of us all, demonstrates is that the British state failed.
On the regulations, as I said in April, during the last debate we had on this subject in this place, the problem during the whole covid episode was not the lack of international co-operation; there was a very high, remarkable, degree of that. Almost every country did exactly the same thing, following China’s example. What we did not have enough of was independent decision making at nation state level. The bits that worked at nation state level were times when individuals and communities on the ground, local government, local public services and local businesses took the initiative to collaborate and develop their own responses, and took responsibility for supporting communities. That is what we needed at the national level, too—more independent decision making, while obviously collaborating and sharing information about what works.
I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government are committed to ensuring that British national sovereignty is reflected in the wording of any new treaty. I am afraid—we are familiar with this from current debates—that peppering legislation with the language of sovereignty is not sufficient. What we really need is the practice of sovereignty and the declaration of principles. Principles are only valid in so far as they are put into practice. We want actual practice of the principle of sovereignty through the treaty that emerges, and in any amendments to the regulations.
I conclude with four questions for the Minister, who I hope will be able to answer them. First, when will we see the next iteration of the draft regulations? I had understood that they were expected now. Secondly, which Minister is responsible for negotiating the treaty and the regulations? Is it him or a colleague? I would also be interested to know which civil servants are involved. We knew who the civil servants negotiating Brexit were. I wonder who has been delegated to the WHO and is working on our behalf there.
Thirdly, colleagues raised the issue of the WHO mandates potentially imposing a very significant bill on the taxpayer. Has work been done to quantify the potential cost to the taxpayer of implementing the requirements of the treaty? Finally, I appreciate that the Minister is probably not in a position to do so today, but will the Government commit to publishing their red lines—what they will and will not accept? Vague commitments to preserving sovereignty are not sufficient. What exactly will be acceptable and not? I appreciate that the negotiations are going on with other states, but I think it would be appropriate for our Government, at this advanced stage of the negotiations, to declare publicly what they are and are not prepared to cede, by way of our independence.
Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for setting out the issue, quite succinctly. I also thank her in her capacity as Chair of the Petitions Committee for having allowed us a three-hour debate. A consequence is that once all the Back-Bench contributions have been heard, we will be able to hear in extenso how His Majesty’s official Opposition will deal with this issue. Even more importantly, we will be able to hear the Minister, who I am delighted to see in his place, say exactly what the Government are doing in response to each of the issues raised in this debate, which are of crucial importance to so many of our constituents.
One of the reasons why we are where we are today is that the response to the debate we had on a petition on this subject in April was, frankly, totally inadequate. It was full of generalisations, and vague suggestions that somehow it was all going to be all right in a day. It really was, “Why are you bothering the Government with this trivial material?” This issue goes to the heart of what the House is all about. It is about who is in charge. Are we, as a democratic Parliament, in charge of the laws of our country, and any attempt by the Government to give away control over those laws to an unaccountable international organisation? It is because of that concern that so many people have signed this petition and we are having this debate again today.
If my right hon. Friend the Minister does not address these issues today, people will say that the Government are not taking this seriously. That would be a disaster. Once we have given away these powers to the WHO, which is power hungry—what international organisation is not power hungry? The WHO certainly is—it is very difficult to get them back. There are ongoing discussions about where we stand in relation to international treaties and international law. There is the insidious development, following the recent Supreme Court case, of what is called “customary” international law. That development basically means that a group of outsiders can tell us in this country what is good for us and what is not.
For the avoidance of doubt, will my hon. Friend agree that none of us has argued this afternoon for withdrawal from the World Health Organisation—we might call it Wexit, for want of a better phrase—
“Yet,” says another hon. Friend. But we want to be assured that the WHO cannot overrule this sovereign Parliament. That is a fundamental difference, is it not?
Sir Christopher Chope
Absolutely; I agree with my right hon. Friend. We do not want to withdraw; there is no need to withdraw from a voluntary organisation that is confined to giving us advice and providing data and information. Who would resent having access to data and information? Indeed, the essence of the relationship between a responsible society and its Government is that the Government should provide information to enable individuals to decide for themselves whether they want to take particular medicines, go on trips to particular countries, be vaccinated in a particular way, or whatever.
I see the proper role of the WHO as providing information to Governments across the globe. Those Governments can then decide for themselves what they like and do not like, having regard to the fact that the WHO’s chairman seems to have been imposed on it by the People’s Republic of China, and was strongly opposed by our Government. It seems very much as though the whole WHO is too beholden to China. The WHO is also beholden to some of its big donors; if one analyses how the WHO is funded, one sees that organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are significant supporters. He who pays the piper calls the tune. I think that is a good starting point when looking at these things. In the case of the WHO, there is too much evidence that the people paying the piper are calling the tune to too great an extent.
Once bitten, twice shy. Let us remind ourselves what happened during the pandemic. As others have mentioned, the WHO went into the pandemic with a policy of saying that lockdowns were not, and could not be, the right answer to a pandemic for all sorts of reasons. We can now see the adverse consequences that flowed from our country’s decision to have a lockdown, and we can compare that with what happened in Sweden. Then, during the early part of the pandemic discussions, and without any evidence being brought forward, the WHO suddenly changed its advice. Why? There is a suspicion that it was because of undue influence from the pressures that I have been describing. We will never know why it changed its advice. All we know is that somebody who changes their advice like that, without any evidence, should not tell us what to do. We should say, “If you want to change your advice, fine, but why do you change it? We don’t have to follow it.” However, under the proposed treaty amendments, we would have to follow it. That is obviously of great concern, because people can see what happened in the past, and that is potentially a guide to the future.
Even more sinister than the change in advice on lockdowns was the WHO’s approach to finding a treatment for covid-19 patients. There was a lot of evidence to suggest that ivermectin—it was not the only such drug—could be used to really good effect to improve outcomes for patients suffering from covid-19. Strong evidence suggested that treatment with ivermectin might improve someone’s chances of survival by as much as 81%, but the WHO intervened at the behest of certain pharmaceutical companies that were in competition with the producers of ivermectin. It gave very dubious advice, to the effect that ivermectin should be used only in clinical trials.
To those who are not familiar with too much of the detail, I commend a book by Dr Pierre Kory, a distinguished physician and epidemiologist—I think he is an epidemiologist. He certainly deals with pulmonary and critical-care medicine; he is a specialist in that. He was in charge of the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, and produced a book called “The War on Ivermectin”. It was a war, organised by the WHO, against a remedy for covid-19, because, obviously, the whole vaccine development programme was premised on there being no cure for covid-19, and no effective treatment for it. In the absence of such treatment, it was legitimate for experimental vaccines to be brought into play without undergoing the full process set out in the Licensing Act 2003, because there was there was nothing else. We were in the desperate situation of there being no other way out. Actually, however, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that ivermectin—
Dame Maria Miller (in the Chair)
Order. I am sure that the hon. Member is not intending to use a prop. Let us leave it to Amazon to sell books.
Sir Christopher Chope
I was holding the book as I was about to quote from it, Dame Maria. I was not trying to advertise it, and I have not contributed to it, although I have to admit that it was given to me; I did not pay for it. However, so that I can put it down, and so that people do not have to look at me waving it around any more, I will get to the quote. On the WHO’s recommendation against ivermectin, Doctor Kory says:
“The corrupt anti-recommendation that followed read like this:
We recommend not to use ivermectin in patients with COVID-19 except in the context of a clinical trial. This recommendation applies to patients with any disease severity and any duration of symptoms. A recommendation to only use a drug in the setting of a clinical trials…is appropriate when there is very low certainty evidence and future research has a large potential for reducing uncertainty about the effects of the intervention and for doing so at reasonable cost.”
That recommendation was given in the knowledge, as a result of work that had been done that, there was an 81% reduced risk of dying. Indeed, the reason that India was very successful in reducing the number of deaths immediately after the pandemic started was that it was using ivermectin in extenso. In the eyes of Dr Kory, the WHO’s refusal to endorse a remedy or treatment contributed to the loss of
“millions of lives across the world.”
Those are quotes from his book, which I will now put down, Dame Maria.
When I first read about that aspect of the work of the WHO, and the way in which it had been corruptly influenced by drug companies that had a direct financial interest in discrediting ivermectin, it raised alarm bells. I thought, “Hang on a minute, why is the WHO engaged in this sort of activity?” I hope that the Government will start looking really seriously, and sceptically, at the work of the WHO, and at the extent to which it is unduly influenced by external factors. A lot of its work is not based on straight science, but is actually political. Reference has already been made to the fact that the WHO does not seem too interested in getting to the bottom of how covid-19 began. Did it begin in a laboratory in China? That narrative would not fit in with the WHO effectively being under the control of the Chinese Government.
This comes back to the point that our hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) made so effectively. The WHO said, prematurely, that it was “extremely unlikely” that covid started from a lab leak. Then, over a year later, I think, the director general said there had been a “premature push” to rule out the lab leak theory. Does that not confirm the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) that there are clearly external factors at play when the WHO gives its advice, and that it should be treated with caution, not as gospel?
Sir Christopher Chope
Absolutely, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to our attention.
Let us reflect for a minute on what other countries are doing. I would have thought that we were one of the proudest sovereign countries, determined to ensure that our Parliament retains control over these sorts of issues; but we seem to have been sidelined by Slovakia, Estonia and New Zealand. If those countries have already come out publicly with their scepticism about the process, why have our Government been sitting on their hands, not saying anything? Instead of being mum about this, I hope that our Government will now say, “By all means, let’s keep the WHO as a body that provides advice, but under no circumstances will we sign up to anything that will give them control over our lives.” It was bad enough that we effectively had a requirement in this country that people should take vaccines—that there was a vaccine mandate.
I spoke the other day to a constituent of mine who worked as an inspector of care homes. He was told that he would lose his job if he refused to be vaccinated; he still refused, and he lost his job. I am pleased to say that he won his case in the tribunal, but that was the sort of consequence for people who fell foul of vaccine mandates. The prospect that it would not be our Government telling people what vaccines they had to take, but rather some unaccountable, foreign international organisation, is even more disturbing.
These are really important issues, and I hope that my friends in Government will take them a lot more seriously than they seem to have done up to now. It is still not clear whether the Department of Health and Social Care or the Foreign Office is in charge of these issues. As has been said, we need to know who among the Ministers will get down to the detail, argue the toss, and ensure that the WHO continues as an organisation but does not take control of our lives.
[Sir George Howarth in the Chair]
I am pleased to see you in the Chair, Sir George. If I sit down now, we will have just shy of two hours in which to hear from the Front Benchers—it is significant that there does not seem to be any SNP spokesman here—on what action they will take to address the concerns of more than 100,000 petitioners on this subject, and a whole lot of other people besides.
Preet Kaur Gill (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab/Co-op)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir George, on this debate responding to the e-petition 635904, which relates to the International Health Regulations 2005. It is wonderful to see so many of the public in attendance.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), who is Chair of the Petitions Committee, for opening the debate. I also thank the right hon. Members for Wokingham (John Redwood) and for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and the hon. Members for Shipley (Philip Davies), for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), for Devizes (Danny Kruger) and for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for their contributions. I was in the debate responding to a similar petition regarding the draft treaty on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response in April; I hope hon. Members who were also in that debate will forgive me for retreading some similar ground.
The covid pandemic was one of the most surreal and seismic events of our lifetimes. Hundreds of thousands of people died here in the United Kingdom and millions more were extremely ill. There are perhaps two million people still living restricted lives, who are now in their fourth year of shielding because they are clinically vulnerable to the virus—we should not forget them. As our economy and public services still recover, it is vital that we learn lessons and take steps to strengthen our resilience for the future, and I hope that the inquiry taking place at the moment will be a valuable resource in that respect. Our NHS was badly prepared, the Government’s handling of public health measures was chaotic, and we jumped in and out of lockdowns. Some measures, such as guidance issued to care homes and eat out to help out, were raised as concerns by Members of this House, including myself.
As we discuss the petition, we must recognise the international dimension of the pandemic, too. Deadly infectious diseases do not respect borders. It is therefore squarely in our interests to co-operate with other nations and support efforts to co-ordinate the global public health response. The lesson of the pandemic was that no one is safe until everyone is safe, so it is clear that global co-operation on pandemics and biological threats needs to be strengthened. Labour absolutely supports the principle of legally binding international health regulations that define the obligations of countries in handling pandemic-level threats. That is critical to our national health security.
The international health regulations under discussion have of course existed in various forms since the 1960s. The latest iteration came into force in 2007. As they stand, the regulations obligate the 196 state parties to develop national core public health capacities for the detection, assessment, control and reporting of public health events. At some international ports, airports and ground crossings, they require parties to notify the WHO of serious diseases with risk of international spread. They set some of the human rights and other protections for any of us travelling abroad—protection of personal health data, for example. Those requirements are hardly controversial, apart from the fact that they were not on their own sufficient to prevent the spread of covid-19 around the world. That is why we think they must be strengthened. Climate change and globalisation mean that biological threats are only becoming more common, and future pandemics could be deadlier than covid-19. If another epidemic strikes with that same infectious potential, we must ensure that we are better prepared.
The subject of debate today is how amendments to the international health regulations and the pandemic accord under negotiation at the World Health Organisation might actually impact the United Kingdom’s public health policy in the future. Earlier I mentioned some of the measures taken by the UK Government during the pandemic, ranging from interventions like eat out to help out to the three national lockdowns. The variety of those policies and how they compare with some of the other 195 countries who are also signed up to the international health regulations shows that the UK and other countries were able to exercise considerable discretion in their domestic responses to the pandemic.
It is important to emphasise this fact: the e-petition we are discussing asks for Parliament to vote on amendments to the IHR, which are being negotiated alongside the draft text of the pandemic accord that we debated here in April. It raises concern that Parliament has not voted on an amendment to which the UK Government agreed and that was adopted at the World Health Assembly last year. That is a process-related amendment under article 59 of the international health regulations, which reduces the time for future amendments to come into force to 12 months. Of course, until any such future amendments are agreed, it will have no impact on the United Kingdom.
In any case, the principles that protect our national sovereignty will remain. The democratically elected Government are responsible for negotiating, signing, ratifying, amending and withdrawing from international treaties under their prerogative powers. Any legislation, if necessary to implement the regulations, would have to go through the proper parliamentary process. No international treaty can, by itself, change United Kingdom law. As for the future amendment, it makes sense that, as the only international treaty on infectious diseases, changes to the IHR are considered alongside the draft text for the pandemic accord. Of course, as negotiations are still under way, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
If what the hon. Lady says is true, why has Parliament just spent two weeks arguing about Rwanda? Can I ask her a direct question? She has heard many concerns expressed from the Conservative Benches about these proposed amendments. With the exception of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), who introduced the debate, not a single Labour Back Bencher has even been present, let alone contributed. Here is the question: would a future Labour Government be minded to accept the spirit of those amendments to the WHO treaty or to oppose them? Our position is very clear. What is the hon. Lady’s?
Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
Order. I understand that feelings are running high and people have areas that they want to explore, but I hope that any further interventions are brief.
Preet Kaur Gill
We all know that Rwanda is just a gimmick by this Government, and I think that I have already set out my position very clearly. I will continue to make my remarks so that the Government are absolutely clear as to where we stand on this issue.
I am pleased that the zero draft highlighted that states must retain sovereignty, and that the implementation of the regulations
“shall be with the full respect for the dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons”.
I ask the Minister to take this opportunity to update us on the progress being made in negotiations over the amendments and the draft text. Can he reassure our constituents that the Government would not sign up to anything that would compromise the UK’s ability to take domestic decisions on national public health measures?
I do not understand the hon. Lady’s argument. This amendment to the regulations would mean that the WHO could decide that there was a health crisis in our country, whether we thought there was or not. It could then tell us how we had to handle it in far more detail than its advisory work during the covid crisis—it would be mandatory. What does she not understand about that and why does she not disagree with it? [Interruption.]
Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
Order. I say to those in the Public Gallery that I know that there are strong feelings and that they have come here with a great deal of interest in the subject, but they need to be quiet. It is not an occasion for applause or shouting out. I would be grateful if people respected that. Thank you.
Preet Kaur Gill
I think that I have made my position really clear, hence my question to the Minister. Our constituents want reassurance that the Government would not sign up to anything that would compromise our ability to take domestic decisions on national public health measures. Nothing has been agreed. Today is an opportunity to hear from the Minister about how those negotiations are going forward and what amendments have been accepted. I also want to hear from the Minister.
On that point, will the hon. Lady give way?
Preet Kaur Gill
I am not taking any more interventions. The reality is that although the pandemic is over now, the threat is not over. We must never leave our country with such a soft underbelly again. We strongly support efforts to strengthen the international legal framework to prevent, protect against, control and respond to cross-border health threats. It is squarely in our interests and integral to our security to encourage other countries to commit to do the same.
The Minister for Health and Secondary Care (Andrew Stephenson)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir George, and I am grateful to the British public and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for raising the important issues covered in the e-petition we are considering today. I start by thanking for their contributions the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies), for Devizes (Danny Kruger) and for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), as well as my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (John Redwood) and for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I also thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) for her remarks. I am only surprised not to see our friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) here, although I am sure that he would be if he were able.
We have held a similar debate on this matter already. However, this debate is slightly different from the one we had in April; the matter before us is whether the House should vote on amendments to the international health regulations. That has stirred discussions both in this place and outside because it relates to two vital aspects of our governance: our sovereignty and our national interest. On both, I am pleased to offer assurances to colleagues and the public that I am satisfied that our approach to the negotiations safeguards our national interest without compromising our sovereignty. I will set out why I believe that before turning to the specific questions put by my right hon. and hon. Friends during the debate.
Why are the negotiations in our national interest? Because the international health regulations do not just exist to protect others from health threats: they directly benefit the UK and help to keep our people safe. The last decade has shown that diseases such as covid, mpox and Ebola do not respect borders. In the case of other health threats, such as the recent case of botulism in France, the IHR allowed us to swiftly engage with French officials to identify and follow up with exposed UK citizens. When Vladimir Putin committed an act of terror on our own soil, the IHR helped to slow and stop the spread in Salisbury. The IHR provide international standards for what it means in practice for each WHO member state to prepare for, detect, prevent and respond to public health events.
I thank the Minister for the speech he is making. The point he is actually making is that the IHR are currently working perfectly adequately—in which case, why do we need to amend them?
The IHR are working well. However, as a number of my hon. and right hon. Friends said in the debate, there has been lots of criticism of how they worked. As the hon. Gentleman will remember, our right hon. Friend who is no longer in this place—Boris Johnson, the former Prime Minister—was one of the leading voices in saying that we should update the IHR, because we surely need to learn lessons and move forwards.
I believe that there is mutual interest—interest for us and for other countries—in working together. One example is delivering a sensitive surveillance system providing an early warning of potential threats to inform decisions that national Governments will make during public health events and emergencies.
The House has already heard that we may have to vote on the amendments, along with others, by the end of May 2024. It is possible that by then we will already have had a general election. The House has heard very plainly from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) that the Labour party would be minded to support all the amendments; when we challenged her, she stopped taking interventions. Labour would back these amendments if it was in government. What would the Conservative party do?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that point. I genuinely believe that a lot here is in all our interests, and I do not want to turn this into a party political ding-dong. I genuinely believe that having us in Government leading the negotiations and getting them settled before any general election is firmly in the UK’s national interest, because I believe that we will deliver a treaty that is in the interests of all our citizens and respects national sovereignty. However, I very much hope that an incoming Labour Government would do the same. That is one of the reasons why I believe that we need to make rapid international progress to agree any revisions to the IHR—because I believe that we are in a good place to do that now and should move swiftly, rather than kicking it into the long grass. The last pandemic taught us that trying to make things up as we go along was not the best course of action. Laying some good foundations and providing some better certainty on how things will be dealt with is the best way forwards.
Sir Christopher Chope
Surely the regulations and the changes are not just one block that we either accept or reject. The Government can deal with each proposed amended change seriatim—one by one. That is why I hope that my right hon. Friend will spell out, in response to the points that have been made, exactly which of the amendments he supports and which ones he does not.
My hon. Friend tempts me, but he will remember that we did not provide a running commentary on the Brexit negotiations. We do not provide a running commentary on our trade negotiations. We do not believe that is in the national interest. Indeed, it is very clear that no text in the latest draft of the accord, published in October and available on the WHO website, has been agreed yet. The whole text is still under negotiation. The draft is just a basis for negotiations, and it will evolve. There are areas of the new draft that we clearly reject and there are areas that we would like to make even stronger. This is an active negotiation between 193 member states to come up with revisions to the IHR that we all believe, by mutual consensus, will be in our global interest.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
Would the Minister be kind enough to answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger)? Who is actually negotiating on this country’s behalf, and which Minister has ultimate responsibility?
The negotiations are being led by civil servants across Whitehall. [Interruption.]
Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
I do not believe it is right to name those civil servants. I am the overall lead on this in the Department of Health and Social Care. I am working closely and have already met with the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). Many other Government Departments will also have a very clear interest in this, including the life sciences Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith). Any treaty agreed will of course be subject to cross-Government write-rounds in the usual fashion, to agree a UK-wide position. It is fair to say that there will not just be one pair of eyes from the ministerial ranks looking at this. There will be multiple pairs of eyes looking at this from across Government to ensure that when we get to a deal, it is a deal that can be agreed across Government and that we believe is in the UK national interest.
The possibility that the language may shift from saying “may” to “shall” is fundamental. I welcome all that the Minister has said about the current collaboration. I am glad it is working so well, but that is based on advice and urging, rather than requirement. It seems to me that this is just like the British people voting for the Common Market with the assurance that we had a veto on any law we did not like, but then somebody came along and took the vetoes away without seeking the British people’s permission, and the relationship went wrong from thereon. This could do exactly the same to the WHO, if we take away the veto.
I hear where my right hon. Friend comes from and I share his concern. As I hope he will recognise, the WHO is led by its 193 member states, which are currently negotiating this. All international health regulations to date have been agreed by consensus, and we would hope that any changes to the regulations are also agreed by consensus. As I say, there are many amendments and parts of the draft that we would not agree to in their current form. I believe these negotiations will hopefully get us into a position—because I believe it is in all our interests and in the national interest—to agree revisions to the IHR. That has to be done through negotiation and consensus. I think that having an approaching deadline focuses minds, and I think it is the right thing to do.
I will give another concrete example of why I believe this is important. During the pandemic, the genomic data shared by our friends in India and elsewhere helped us to tailor vaccines as new variants emerged around the globe. We all saw over the pandemic that, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, no one is safe until everyone is safe and that global problems require global solutions.
The best way to protect the UK from the next pandemic is by ensuring all WHO members can contain and respond effectively to public health events through compliance with strengthened IHR. Targeted amendments to the IHR will further strengthen our global health security, by helping Governments plan together, detect pathogens swiftly, and share data where helpful and necessary. The pandemic highlighted weaknesses in the implementation of the IHR for global health emergency response. For example, covid demonstrated that the IHR could be strengthened through a more effective early-warning system with a rapid risk assessment trigger for appropriate responses to public health threats.
Does my right hon. Friend the Minister not fear that what happens in the World Health Organisation negotiations will be very similar to what happens at things such as COP26, COP27 and COP28, at which all these countries sign up to something—most of them knowing full well they have absolutely no intention of following what they have signed up to—and we are left following the agreements when other countries do not even bother?
I hope that no Government would sign up to any treaty that it will not follow. I agree that, in a whole range of areas, countries around the world have sometimes not fulfilled their part of international obligations, but the UK Government will certainly not sign up to something that we do not believe is fair and proportionate, that is not our national interests and that we would not seek to follow ourselves. I share my hon. Friend’s concern that other countries have not followed regulations in the past, and there is no point in our passing strengthened regulations if we do not believe that other countries will follow them. We believe that the regulations are designed to prevent and control the international spread of disease. They are limited to public health risks and designed to avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade. That is why we support the process of agreeing targeted amendments to the IHR as an important way to better prepare for future global health emergencies.
Sir Christopher Chope
Can the Minister explain the process in relation to the amendments? He talks about consensus, but what happens if this country does not get its way in relation to some of the amendments that it opposes? Would that mean that, if those amendments are incorporated in the final text, we can and will opt out of them?
Yes, that is exactly what consensus means. To be clear, the WHO secretariat is supporting both processes by hosting the international negotiating body and the working group on amendments to the regulations, and by supporting the chairs to prepare texts and answer questions from member states. Both negotiations, however, are member state-led processes. It is member states that are negotiating; it is not the World Health Organisation. I completely appreciate that some see this as a WHO power grab, but it is important to remember that it is a member state-led process.
We came together with other nations through the World Health Organisation to agree a process to negotiate targeted amendments to the IHR at the 75th World Health Assembly back in May 2022. By consensus, we adopted process-related amendments under article 59 of the regulations. The UK supported those amendments because they increased the timeliness of member states’ compliance with future amendments to the IHR. That will better protect us from future global health emergencies. As part of the agreed process, member states could submit proposed amendments for consideration, and to that end a working group, made up of all WHO member states, through which the amendments would be negotiated and agreed was created.
The Minister is being generous with his time. The crucial question on which the Chamber and the public would like an answer from the Minister, who is speaking on behalf of the Government who are negotiating the instruments, is whether the Minister believes that the WHO guidance—recommendations, as they were—becoming mandatory under amendments to article 1 and new article 13A of the treaty are compatible with retaining UK sovereignty.
I think that that was covered in the previous debate and has been covered by various Ministers. We have been clear from the outset of the process that we will not agree to any amendments that cede UK sovereignty. If the UK Government accept an IHR amendment that we have negotiated with our international partners, then, depending on the context of that amendment, changes to international law may be required. In those instances, the Government would prepare any draft legislation, and Parliament would vote on it in the usual way.
It is important to remember that, in and of themselves, IHR amendments and the new pandemic accord do not change the power of UK law. If required, we would ourselves change UK law through our sovereign Parliament, to reflect our international obligations under the IHR amendments. Let me be clear: in all circumstances, the sovereignty of the UK Parliament would remain unchanged and we would remain in control of any future domestic decisions on national public health measures.
I thank the Minister for giving way so often. To be clear and to follow on from my earlier question, he has put on the record that we have a right to opt out of any amendments with which the UK does not agree. That is reassuring. On that basis, if an amendment were to be voted on by the WHO to say that it could impose a lockdown on the United Kingdom without our approval, will the Minister give a commitment that we would opt out of it?
I can give a categorical reassurance to my right hon. Friend that that is a red line for the UK Government. We would never allow the World Health Organisation to impose a lockdown in the UK. That is a clear red line for us. I cannot think of any Minister who would agree to such a request.
I can confidently say to my colleagues—as someone who campaigned for Brexit and who has helped to deliver Brexit in this place—that I am passionate about this country’s sovereignty. I believe that the Government’s position needs to be crystal clear and it is one that I endorse. We support the member state-led process of agreeing targeted amendments to the IHR and the new pandemic accord for the sake of global health preparedness, but we will not agree in any circumstances to provisions that would cede sovereignty to the WHO. That includes the ability to make decisions on national public health measures, whether lockdowns, which we just mentioned, or vaccine programmes.
The Minister will understand people’s nervousness about this. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) referred to, in the 1971 White Paper Ted Heath said that there was no question of Britain losing essential sovereignty by joining the Common Market. We saw how that went. My point, and what I am worried about, is whether the Government will have to bring forward proposals that the WHO insists on even if they do not like it, and so bring the power of Government voting to that decision. That is what I worry about, that Parliament will still decide, but that the Government will be forced to bring forward measures in Parliament, even though they may not necessarily agree with them.
I reiterate: this is a member state-led process, with 193 member states negotiating. It will be a difficult negotiation, but all previous regulations have been agreed by consensus. If the text ends up in a position where the UK Government do not feel that we can sign up to it, the other member states may decide to proceed, but they will not be regulations that we are bound by, because we will not agree to them. This is an evolving situation and we have agreed a pathway for negotiations. As right hon. and hon. Members know, the text and the amendments are available online.
May I turn to some of the contributions? I will start with those paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford in paying tribute to his wife and other NHS staff, who did an incredible job during the pandemic. Sometimes, when debating technical issues such as this, we can overlook their incredible contribution, but it is right what my right hon. Friend said today. He also talked about the importance of data sharing globally, which I think we would all agree is vital.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes asked when the next iteration of the text will be available. No new texts or amendments have been agreed yet, so there is nothing further to be shared. However, we expect negotiations to continue until May 2024, when member states will agree completion at the World Health Assembly. I am actively exploring ways in which I can keep the House informed of further developments, although as I say, the standing position of the Government on such issues is that we do not do a running commentary on negotiations. I am actively looking at what more we can do to keep Members informed.
That leads me on to another question that my hon. Friend asked about the costs of these measures. Obviously, as we have not agreed the provisions of the treaty, we cannot yet estimate how much it might cost and whether we would publish our red lines. Unfortunately, as I say, I will decline to say more on red lines now; I have set out one clear red line today and we have a very clear red line on sovereignty. However, I do not believe that we should run through these negotiations in public; I believe that we should give our negotiators time to reach as much international consensus as possible.
The Minister is being extremely generous in giving way. One of the lessons from the Brexit negotiations was that civil servants in the room negotiating were not always following the ministerial line, so may I encourage my right hon. Friend to go himself to the negotiations, repeat what he has told the House today, and make sure that the civil servants who are in the room when he leaves get the message that he has just delivered?
I will certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said. Some of the civil servants involved in the negotiation have already heard clearly from me, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, and my hon. Friend the life sciences Minister about various red lines and other things that we are very clear about, so there is clear ministerial input. There will be a part in this process where Ministers can get involved, but I will certainly look into what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) suggests and what more I can do to ensure that UK sovereignty is in no way compromised, so that I can continue to provide further reassurance to all those right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken today.
We all want—well, maybe not all of us, but I believe the Government want a strong World Health Organisation that is fit for purpose and able to respond rapidly to global health challenges and future threats. The UK is working with our international partners to shape the WHO in that way.
Our priorities for the amendments and for the accord are global in scope but they are also in pursuit of our national interest. It is in our national interest to prevent another pandemic. Should—God forbid—another pandemic should occur, it is in the national interest to co-operate with others to slow and stop its spread. In these negotiations, I can assure right hon. and hon. Members that I would never countenance acting contrary to our national interest. We will protect our country from future public health emergencies without ceding an inch of sovereignty.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 635904, relating to the International Health Regulations 2005.