We are 140 days into what Boris Johnson has proudly called “the year of British leadership”. But looking at this government from the outside, you would never know it. Where is the British leadership over the conflict in Israel and Palestine, over the Chinese genocide against the Uyghurs, or over the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen? And what claim to global leadership can this government make while taking an axe to vital education, health and climate crisis programmes across the developing world?
But there is one area where global leadership is required more urgently than any other, and where it is currently nowhere to be found from Johnson’s government: the international fight against Covid-19. The humanitarian crisis in India highlights the alarming and growing gulf between countries such as ours, where more than half of the population have had their first jab, and many countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean where vaccination programmes have barely begun.
Thousands are still dying every day around the world simply because we are not producing the volume of vaccines we need at the pace we need them to save those lives. And the longer Covid-19 runs rampant among unvaccinated populations, the more likely that aggressive new variants will emerge that threaten the success of existing vaccine programmes.
That cycle needs urgently to be broken through coordinated action at a global level, but where is the leadership coming from to make that happen? Again, not from Johnson’s government.
On one of the central issues, the proposed waiver of vaccine patents, British ministers have not just sat on the fence in the debate, but have kept entirely silent. What they should be saying, as Labour has, is that those talks must move quickly towards concrete proposals, but with the understanding that – on its own – a waiver of patents will not fix this crisis.
In recent weeks, talking to NGOs, scientists and other experts in the field, Labour’s shadow cabinet has explored potential solutions to the fundamental global shortage of vaccine supplies. Today we have written to our counterparts in government outlining the key elements of a comprehensive 10-point plan to transform the volume of vaccine production worldwide.
We propose a global effort to identify and equip the dozens of new facilities required in key countries and regions around the world to undertake vaccine production, or fill and finish operations, building on the model of Oxford’s new Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre.
We propose the world’s largest ever coordinated investment programme – in partnership with the pharmaceutical industry – to ensure that these new facilities have the skills, technology and supplies they need to enable the safe and efficient mass production of vaccines. And we propose the necessary institutional arrangements – from a regulatory body to oversee vaccine production standards to a formal trade and investment agreement among participating countries – to replicate at a global level the successful direction provided in Britain by the vaccine taskforce.
But in addition to these nuts-and-bolts measures, we propose the determined global pursuit of new innovations that would transform the fight against Covid-19 and future viral diseases, including the development of orally active vaccines to be produced and distributed in capsule form.
In common with every element of our plan, the pursuit of these transformative goals is not just to help the world stop the spread of Covid-19 but to establish the mechanisms, infrastructure and tools that will allow us to tackle future pandemics much more efficiently and effectively. So while the costs of financing this plan will doubtless be substantial, they must be weighed against the human, social and economic damage we will avoid if we can bring this current pandemic to a rapid end and ensure it will never be repeated on the same scale.
It is therefore a plan to make the world safe now and more secure in the future, and one that Labour’s shadow cabinet has worked intensively under Keir Starmer’s leadership to develop. During this so-called year of British leadership, is it too much to ask for Boris Johnson’s government to do the same?