Ashworth stresses need for action on “international health security”

Elliot Chappell

Jonathan Ashworth has stressed the need for Labour and others to “do more on international health security” in light of the current pandemic and warned that there can be “no Covid security for us unless there is Covid security for all”.

Addressing Fabian Society members at their 2021 new year conference this afternoon, the Shadow Health Secretary highlighted a lack of past policy discussion and debate around “pandemic preparedness” in the UK and abroad.

Ashworth told the virtual event: “All the debates and seminars in Labour health policy discussion in recent years has been about chronic disease and an ageing society, and they need to be tackled.

“But I cannot remember ever coming to a Fabian event, or even myself engaging in this debate, to discuss how we build health security against the threats of emerging infectious diseases.

“And yet, it is remarkable when you think about it, that in the last ten years we have had a number of pandemics that have swept the world: MERS, the first SARS pandemic, Ebola, the Zika virus.

“They haven’t all impacted the UK in the way this one has, but those warning signs were there, and I think we’ve become a little complacent about it.

“And I include myself in this. I remember doing the first draft of the health manifesto for the 2019 general election… Pandemic preparedness never featured.”

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerged in 2002. It spread around the world and appeared in at least 26 countries. The Centre for Disease Control reported that over 8,000 people were infected and that 774 died.

The 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa was the “largest, most severe and most complex Ebola epidemic” in history, according to the World Health Organisation. 11,000 people died before the health emergency was declared ended in June 2016.

The Shadow Health Secretary stressed the impact of climate change on the prevalence of infectious diseases around the globe and explained to those attending the virtual event today that tackling climate change is a “big part” of health security.

“In a world of climate change, where global warming means mosquitos can travel further, where rapid urbanisation and deforestation in parts of the world will disturb more of the habitats of animals, where global warming means that permafrost is melting,” Ashworth argued.

“The conditions where more infectious diseases can jump from animals to humans and spread across the world rapidly, like we’ve seen with this one, becomes more of an issue.”

He added: “So, I think, you’ve got to protect the health of your individuals, put in place a health and care structure that deals with an ageing society and we’ve got to do more on international health security now as well.”

Ashworth said he believes there are two pandemics currently “interacting” with each other in the UK: coronavirus and an existing “category of non-communicable diseases, chronic conditions” reflected in health inequalities across the country.

He emphasised the need to combat health inequalities between communities in the country and warned those watching today that “until you put in place real strategies to reduce health inequalities, you will never have Covid security”.

“On top of that,” he argued, “unless you act internationally, you will never have Covid security because you have got to deal with climate change… and you’ve got to play your part in ensuring the world is vaccinated.”

The shadow cabinet member added: “There can be no Covid security for us unless there is Covid security for all. And, you know, it’s great that we’re vaccinating and we’re ambitious and I’m pushing the government to go further.

“But unless you’re vaccinating across the world as well you always run the risk that there is opportunities for the virus to mutate further, which could come back and evade our immune response.”

He concluded by telling attendees: “When we get that Labour government, we will lead an all-out assault on health inequalities, putting in place the measures for people’s health and wellbeing to flourish both here and internationally.”

Despite efforts to procure vaccines internationally, many countries are projected to secure enough to immunise only 20% of their populations, which experts have explained will not be enough to stop transmission of the coronavirus.

The UK began the roll-out of Covid vaccines late last year. Government sources have reportedly said everyone over 18 could be vaccinated by the end of June, but Dominic Raab said this morning that the “roadmap” is to offer a first jab to every adult by September.

Ashworth last week told the government to “go further and faster” in its efforts to vaccinate the population, highlighting that immunising 30 million people in the country would reduce hospitalisations and deaths by around 99%.

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