Labour says UK must ‘get off the fence’ over global Covid vaccine access

Shadow trade secretary backs US call for patent waiver as party proposes plan to increase production in poorer countries

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Last modified on Thu 20 May 2021 01.02 EDT

The Labour party is urging Boris Johnson to lead a drive by rich countries to boost global Covid-19 vaccine production and is warning the threat from new coronavirus variants will persist without immediate action.

Five members of the shadow cabinet have written to the trade secretary, Liz Truss, with a proposed 10-point plan designed to increase the ability of poorer countries to manufacture and distribute treatments for the virus.

In an article for the Guardian the shadow trade secretary, Emily Thornberry, says Britain should “get off the fence” and back US demands for a vaccine patent waiver, while stressing that changes to intellectual property rights will not solve the problem of limited vaccine coverage in Asia, Africa and Latin America on their own.

Pressure on rich countries such as Britain has mounted in recent weeks after the decision of Joe Biden to back a patent waiver, and the issue will come up at next month’s G7 summit in Cornwall, where the UK has put the global fight against Covid-19 on the agenda.

The former prime minister Gordon Brown has called on the G7 to provide £20bn this year to ensure blanket vaccine coverage and Thornberry said it was time for the prime minister to show leadership.

“On one of the central issues, the proposed waiver of vaccine patents, British ministers have not just stayed on the fence in the debate, but kept entirely silent,” she says in her article.

“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.”

Britain has been the single biggest donor to Covax – the global vaccine initiative – but Thornberry said a plan was needed to make the world safer now and in the future.

The letter to Truss – also signed by the shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, shadow business secretary, Ed Miliband, shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, and shadow international development secretary, Kaur Gill – followed discussions with NGOs, scientists and other experts, Thornberry said.

Labour’s proposal involves 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. The letter to Truss accepts that the upfront cost, while unspecified, will be substantial but says the investment will pay for itself.

“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,” the letter says.

“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.”

Labour’s 10-point plan includes proposals for production and procurement, the transfer of skills and expertise, global regulation of new treatments and an effort to develop oral vaccines.

Johnson will host the G7 in three weeks but the letter calls on the prime minister to act without delay. The idea that the countries attending the summit – the UK, the US, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and France – cannot insulate themselves from the pandemic has been reinforced in recent weeks by the arrival in the UK of a variant of the virus first detected in India.

“The fact that Covid-19 is still killing thousands of people every day around the world is down entirely to the unacceptable and growing gulf between countries like ours where more than two-thirds of adults have had their first jab and many countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean where vaccination programmes have barely begun, and where billions of people are therefore still left unprotected. We cannot let that inequity continue,” the letter says.

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