Speech: Reinvigorating our system for international health

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Statement to Parliament: New action to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Bolton

In 1832, the London Quarterly Review stated that:

We have witnessed the birth of a new pestilence, which in the short space of 14 years has desolated the fairest portions of the globe, and swept off at least 50 million.

It has mastered every variety of climate, surmounted every natural barrier, and conquered every people.

That was in 1832 and that new pestilence was cholera, which brought devastation across the world.

At first, nations turned inwards, and responded alone but after 3 consecutive cholera pandemics in 30 years, accelerated by growing industrialisation, urbanisation and global trade, countries soon realised that infectious diseases could no longer be handled as a domestic issue alone.

Collaboration and co-operation with your neighbours, in the spirit of mutual benefit, is critical to tackling cholera, just as it is today.

In 1851, 12 nations came together and created the International Sanitary Convention, which is the forerunner of the World Health Organization.

Over time, more countries joined the effort, as they discovered more and more areas where they could work together for the greater good. They put in place, for instance, a legal obligation for countries to notify one another about outbreaks of disease, which in effect the worlds first early warning system.

And thanks to this close co-operation over generations, and the scientific effort, illuminating breakthroughs from pioneers all over the world could be accelerated.

Like Louis Pasteur in France, Robert Koch in Germany, Fillipo Pacini in Italy, Sambhu Nath De in India and John Snow here in Britain. They came together, made huge strides in combatting cholera, although there is of course more still to do.

We must learn from history. The reason I talk about this history is because the issue of how to keep us humans healthy and safe in an interconnected world is even more pressing now than it was in the 19th century.

Especially given the UN forecast that two-thirds of the world are projected to live in dense urban areas by 2050.

For me, the history of 2020 was about nations working to solve pressing challenges immediately in front of them at home.

Weve all been engaged in essentially the same effort, but too often its been individual nations battling alone.

Now is the time to reject protectionism, the narrow nationalism, and the disinformation that can divide us, and can hinder the response to this common threat.

After all, COVID-19 affects every nation. Because we are all human.

So 2021 must be the year in which humanity comes together, even despite the restrictions that keep us physically apart.

As you mention this year, the UK has the honour of holding the presidency of the G7. We take on this mantle at a time when the health of humanity is under great strain. And although this is a time of great global turmoil, it is also a time to learn from our shared experiences and build a stronger international health system.

We must build back better, learn from what went well, and be more prepared for future pandemics and future threats to public health.

Im proud that the UK has been a consistent voice for global solidarity throughout this crisis. And Im proud that weve put our money behind that commitment.

Were the biggest donor to the international effort for access to vaccines.

The UK played a leading role in the international effort to raise 2.4 billion dollars for the COVAX Advance Market Commitment, which will distribute at least 1.3 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines to 92 developing countries this year.

And I want our stewardship of the G7 to build on this work, and the like-minded work thats taking place all across the world.

Im thrilled that the United States announced last week that it has abandoned plans to leave the World Health Organization, and instead has recommitted once more to playing a central leadership role. This is good news for everyone. And were all stronger and safer as a result.

Im excited by the opportunity to work with the G7, the G20, and partners right across the whole world to reinvigorate our global system, according to the values of empathy and shared solidarity that are crucially important in a pandemic.

I was reflecting that in normal times, healthcare in each country is often seen as largely a domestic affair, concerned with improving the health of the nation.

International collaboration is of course important but in normal times the focus is on universal health coverage like obesity and mental health crises. But a pandemic makes it absolutely central, so organisations like the G7 are all the more important.

From a personal point of view, I found the weekly G7 health ministers calls at the height of the pandemic like a therapy session at times, frankly.

And given the experience that weve had across the west, its absolutely vital that G7 members come together to provide the international leadership that people look to us for.

After all, the G7 represents two-thirds of the global pharmaceutical market, the majority of the worlds genomic capability and leads the world in life sciences and clinical trials.

The pandemic has thrust the G7 health agenda to the centre of global affairs. Health policy is the number one economic policy, security policy and social policy of every country. So we must make G7 leadership count.

The agenda Im setting for the G7 this year is not just about discussion, important as that is. There is significant and substantial work that we have to do and concrete progress that must be made.

This work needs to be based on the enlightenment values of collaboration, transparency and scientific progress.

The G7 has already, for the first time, made a joint statement to the WHO executive board, in support of vital reforms to that vital body.

Today, I want to set out the UKs G7 agenda for the rest of this year and also some of the actions were putting in place immediately to deliver on it.

Health security for all

The first area is health security for everyone.

We must renew our commitment to the founding ideals of the WHO that the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.

We must do this, not just because it is morally right.

But when we allow holes to form in our global defences, due to inadequate or unco-ordinated health provision, that is a threat not just to health services around the world, but to our economic prosperity, and to our collective security.

The pandemic has shown that the foundations of so many of the exciting experiences that make life worth living, like the ability to travel, go to the theatre, or to start and grow your own business, are contingent not just on our health, or the health of our near neighbours, but the health of people everywhere.

So we must work to promote health security right across the world, developing transparent ways of preventing, detecting and responding to outbreaks, strengthening the World Health Organization so it is more nimble, delivering effective surveillance and early warning systems for the threats of the future, and looking not just at human health, but animal health, and all parts of our environment.

Now of course, a threat that has been on all of our minds over the past few weeks has been new variants of coronavirus.

New variants can threaten the exceptional progress weve made with vaccines, so its vital that we react swiftly to identify them and get them under control wherever they are.

Genomic sequencing is pivotal to this.

The UK was one of the first countries in the world to recognise the need for an infrastructure for viral genomic sequencing and weve backed it with huge investment, long before COVID-19 emerged.

Since COVID-19 has emerged, the UK has sequenced over half of all the COVID-19 viral genomes that have been submitted to the global database, nearly 10 times more than any other country.

This bolstered capacity isnt just important for us here at home, combined with progressive transparency, its for the whole world.

Thanks to this pioneering work, we identified a variant that was circulating in the UK, and we were then able, quickly, to alert our international partners to its danger through the WHO, and so help aid the response everywhere.

Weve seen other countries that have a substantial genomic capacity identify new variants locally too, but many countries do not have the capacity they need.

So today we are announcing our New Variant Assessment Platform.

Well be working with the WHO to offer our UK genomic capacity to help other countries analyse new variants of the virus, and offer our training and resources to help them build their capacity too.

Our New Variant Assessment Platform will help us better understand this virus and how it spreads, wherever any mutation is found, because as weve all learned, a mutation in one part of the world is a threat to people everywhere.

The New Variant Assessment Platform will boost global capacity to understand coronavirus, so were all better prepared for whatever lies ahead.

It will form an integral part of the international offer of the new National Institute for Health Protection

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