A number of constituents have recently contacted me to express their concerns about a potential new international treaty for pandemic preparedness.
As we all know, the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the greatest challenges to the established international order since the Second World War; a global threat that has required global solutions borne out of global cooperation.
As in the late 1940s, where, to avert a repeat of the cataclysm of total war, world leaders united to establish the multilateral system we have today, I think it is fair to argue that a similar effort is required on the part of world leaders to strengthen preparedness for potential future pandemics.
As such, I welcome the suggestion of the former Prime Minister, writing with other world leaders in 2021, that the international community should commit to producing a new international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response. I understand that the UK has engaged with academics, civil society organisations, trade associations, and other non-state actors to ensure the treaty would such a treaty would aim to foster greatly enhanced cooperation in order to better protect the UK from the health, social and economic impacts of pandemic.
Discussions are ongoing at the World Health Organisation to this end and I look forward to receiving an update in due course.
As many of you will know, the International Health Regulations are a key part of the current global health security system to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease.
The original International Sanitary Regulations, which preceded the International Health Regulations, were adopted in 1969 and amended several times: in 1973, in 1981, and in 2005. The third edition (2005) has been amended twice – in 2014 and 2022. The revisions of the regulations illustrate their fluid nature, adapting to the health challenges that the world faces at that time. As medical knowledge changes, I believe it is only right that health regulations change too.
Regarding the current amendments, HM Government is eager to ensure that countries' obligations under the IHR remain fit for purpose and reflect the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic. Measures that HMG wish to see include a stronger global commitment to effective disease surveillance, early reporting of potential health threats, and transparency in sharing information. I understand that HMG continues to formulate positions during ongoing textual negotiations and has engaged other World Health Organisation member states on the matter, including through the Working Group on Amendments to the IHR.
Personally, I would like to see the Government reach agreement on its priority areas such as improving transparency, timely data sharing and supporting equitable access to vaccines and treatments before anything else.
Nonetheless, I appreciate constituents’ concerns about this; however, the Government will not support any treaty which compromises the UK's sovereignty. There is nothing in the proposed treaty that would impact our ability to take decisions about national lockdowns or associated measures at the national level. I would certainly not support one which gave the WHO powers to make such decisions which are rightly the preserve of national governments. In conjunction with this, the Director-General of the WHO commented in March 2023 that "the claim that the accord will cede power to WHO is quite simply false" and reaffirmed that no country will cede any sovereignty to WHO.
Once adopted, international treaties only become binding in the UK when ratified by Parliament in accordance with our constitutional process. No international treaty can by itself change UK law. If changes to the law are necessary then a treaty could not be ratified until domestic legislation, agreed by Parliament, was put in place. As I have said, I, alongside this Government, will not support any treaty that is not in our interest or which compromises the UK's sovereignty.