On 13 January 2022, Rushanara Ali MP gave a speech in the Westminster Hall Debate on global vaccine access.
Due to time restrictions in the debate, Rushanara was unable to give her full speech, which you can find in full below.
Thank you, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate the Hon. Member for North East Fife for securing this important debate.
I also want to take this opportunity to remember my friend and the former member for Birmingham Erdington who made his last speech last Thursday whilst I was in the chair. Our thoughts are with his family. He has been an incredible colleague and wonderful friend to so many of us.
He was also a powerful advocate for international justice and for standing up for those who are vulnerable. His last speech was about the settlement of Afghanis. Today we debate the need for vaccinating the world and protecting people in some of the poorest communities around the world, and it’s in that spirit that I want to highlight a number of points.
I would like to start by recognising the incredible achievements of the UK vaccination programme. Everyone - from the scientists who developed the vaccines, to the doctors and nurses administering doses, to volunteers standing in cold car parks directing people to the clinics – deserves our praise. Nine out of ten UK citizens over twelve years old, have had at least one dose of vaccine. A remarkable national effort, with our NHS at its heart.
There is now widespread understanding, supported by scientific evidence, that vaccines are the surest route to public safety. And where there are misgivings and doubts, often prompted by misinformation on social media, we must work harder to show people that vaccines are the best way to protect your friends, neighbours, families and yourself.
As the UK passes the tragic milestone of 150,000 deaths, we are reminded that that Covid is still here, still a killer, and still capable of ravaging our communities. My thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones and are suffering from the chronic effects of long covid and dealing with life-changing ill-health, which we are only just starting to understand.
The pandemic is not over. The progress we have made in this country is rendered meaningless unless we act as a global community. All our sacrifices will have been for nothing unless we tackle the pandemic on a global scale. Covid-19 is no respecter of national borders or the vast spaces between continents. In an age of global travel, trade and global connectivity, it is not enough to only act on the national level.
It is almost two years since UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “Covid-19 is menacing the whole of humanity, and so the whole of humanity must fight back”. And that stands as true today as then. This is surely the key point, that until we are all safe, none of us is safe. The truth is that the global pandemic has revealed stark, shameful inequalities in global healthcare, the fragility of health systems in developing nations. Until we address these inequalities and tackle them, we are not safe. It is not just about global justice but also about self-preservation.
Key to this is the equitable distribution of Covid vaccines to where they are needed most, across Asia, across South America, and across Africa. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said: “More than 5.7 billion doses have been administered globally, but only 2% of those have been administered in Africa.” “This doesn’t only hurt the people of Africa, it hurts all of us. The longer vaccine inequity persists, the more the virus will keep circulating and changing, the longer the social and economic disruption will continue, and the higher the chances that more variants will emerge that render vaccines less effective.”
The World Health Organisation’s targets are to vaccinate at least 70% globally by the middle of 2022. Almost 90% of high-income countries have now vaccinated at least 10% of their populations, and more than 70% have reached the 40%. However, not a single low-income country has reached either target.
As of 8 December 2021, only 6% of people in low-income countries (having a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita below US $1,045) have received at least one vaccine dose, compared to 75% in high-income states (GNI per capita above US$ 12,696).
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been a powerful advocate in demanding greater action in our effort to vaccinate the world. He has described our failure to distribute vaccines as one of the greatest policy failures of our time, and a “stain on our global soul” and he is right. There is something fundamentally rotten about a system which stockpiles vaccines while billions are crying out for them.
The answer lies in a new internationalist mindset, liberated from narrow nationalism, which views every citizen as equal, no matter where they live. It requires a global vaccination programme anchored on the principle that until everyone is safe, none of us is safe. It demands the fair global distribution of public health resources based on medical need, not on size of GDP, military might, or ideological stance. Most of all, it requires renewed international co-operation and collaboration to match the scale of the challenge.
I welcomed the establishment of COVAX to distribute vaccines globally, and the pledges by the G7 leaders last June to contribute 870 million doses to the COVAX programme. But despite the goal to distribute 170 million doses by 31 May 2021, only 76 million were delivered.
In July, Gavi (the vaccines alliance) estimated that Covax would deliver 2.2 billion doses by January 2022, but this estimate was reduced last September to 1.4 billion by the end of 2021. We should be hitting and exceeding our targets, not trimming them back.
As the FCDO select committee reported in September 2021: “We welcome the UK’s commitment to donate 100 million vaccines in the year to June 2022. However, this target falls far short of what is needed to meet the health challenge and protect British nationals from further outbreaks and variants, let alone meet our moral duty.”
We should be backing the global calls for a waiver on patents on vaccines, so that we can transfer knowledge and step up production. Back in May last year, the Biden administration added its considerable weight to calls for a waiver on vaccine patents, joining France, South Africa and India, and this needs to happen urgently. The UK government should follow suit and back the waiver, and I invite the Minister to address this in their speech today.
However, the main issue is not production, but distribution of vaccines. We have stockpiles in developed nations with limited shelf-lives, and a crying need in other parts of the world. As the WHO says: “With global vaccine production now at nearly 1.5 billion doses per month, there is enough supply to achieve our targets, provided they are distributed equitably. This is not a supply problem; it’s an allocation problem.”
To fix this allocation problem, we need world leaders with imagination and courage to reshape our international institutions, and national parliaments and governments to put aside old ways of thinking. We need to stop using vaccines as a bargaining chip, or just a means to boost trade or GDP – they are a means to life, and must be freely available. That means new systems of supply, logistics and distribution, transcending borders A truly global effort to match a truly global threat.
There is also a sound economic argument for equitable vaccine access. An IMF working paper called The Effects of COVID-19 Vaccines on Economic Activity, from October 2021, states that: “increases in vaccination per capita is associated with a significant increase in economic activity.” As the Governor of the Bank of England recently pointed out, vaccines are a global public good. The cumulative gains from vaccinating the entire world will be $9 trillion by 2025, where populations can avoid lockdowns, and schools, colleges and workplaces can stay open, then national economies can prosper. Vaccinating the world could generate £1 trillion in tax revenues making it possibly the highest return in public investment. Rolling out vaccines across every corner of the globe is vital to keeping our economy growing and to our standards of living and our way of life.
We must make this pandemic the last pandemic which has such a devasting impact on the global economy and global health. The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, chaired by former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark, has called for urgent reforms to global health systems. The panel’s report calls for global systems of surveillance and monitoring, financing, and preparedness. Its recommendations should be implemented without delay. The point is that unless we fundamentally reform the way respond in a pandemic to ensure equitable vaccine access and health protection, we will be doomed to constantly beat one strain of Coronavirus as a new one takes hold in some unvaccinated corner of the globe. We have the power to defeat this nightmare of never-ending pandemic – the question is: do we have the will?