Even as the UK faces its darkest moment in the pandemic yet, there is some cause for optimism in 2021. The news of several successful vaccines and the rollout underway mean we can begin to cautiously look forward to returning to something more resembling our normal lives later this year. Labour is committed to doing everything it can to support this national effort.
However, there is no doubt that news of new more transmissible strains of coronavirus has set our country back in this fight, and offers a cautionary lesson about the forward roadmap.
We must recognise that the more this virus circulates, the more opportunity it has to mutate. As we hear about new South African and Brazilian variants, the way this virus has spread across borders and around the globe has demonstrated the importance of working with other countries to overcome it as quickly as possible. The chaos this Christmas, as countries shut their borders to the UK, showed how far-reaching the consequences can be if we don’t.
Globally, over 2 million people have died directly from the coronavirus. It is costing the global economy $375bn (£274bn) a month, and more than 200 million people are at risk of being pushed into extreme poverty; living on less than $1.90 a day.
The longer the pandemic rages, the more damage will be done to families around the world suffering from a crisis they did not create. As we in the UK know only too well, leaving it late to act can be catastrophic.
Our country faces the worst death toll in Europe despite our wonderful NHS; and most countries around the world do not have anywhere near as strong a health care system, let alone one which is free when you need it.
We know that the quicker the virus is brought under control the sooner we can rebuild a brighter, better future. Yet vaccine nationalism, where richer countries muscle their way to the front of the queue for vaccine doses, has meant most of the low-income countries in the global south won’t have wide access to a vaccine before April 2022 at the earliest.
We must work day and night in the UK to vaccinate our own population, but we also need the government to acknowledge its moral duty and play its part in ensuring vaccinations are manufactured and delivered to those most in need around the world.
Failing to get the pandemic under control heightens the risk of the virus mutating into new more dangerous strains and risks inhibiting trade and the economic recovery. This is why supporting the world’s poorest people is in both the national and international interest.
Our government’s decisions to scrap a world renowned development department in the middle of a pandemic, when it should have been focused on saving lives, refusal to disclose details of cuts to life-saving and life-changing aid programmes, and cynical politically-motivated slashing of the aid budget were profound mistakes that signalled the UK’s retreat from the world stage.
Make no mistake, those actions damaged the UK’s reputation with our allies and detractors, and diminished our credibility, making it harder to bring other countries together to tackle the pandemic as quickly as possible.
We are rightly proud of our brilliant scientists who have worked with their international colleagues to create Covid-19 treatments and vaccines, putting us in a position where we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.
UK public money has been a driving force in financing innovation in the healthcare system, including in the development of these vaccines. We should be sharing this knowledge and expertise.
The UK cannot and has not done it alone, and we should be supporting international efforts to share technologies and data to deliver and upscale manufacturing of Covid-19 technologies, including a vaccine, with fair and transparent pricing, so that we can maximise our chances of putting the pandemic behind us as soon as possible.
We must be working with our international partners to ensure other countries contribute to UN initiatives designed to develop, produce and distribute not only vaccinations, but also vital testing capabilities and capacity which currently face budget shortfalls.
We must also look to and learn from other countries, especially those in the global south with more recent experience and expertise in conducting mass public vaccination programmes.
This year we are faced with the biggest global challenge of our lives – and by helping others, we will help ourselves.
Working together, collaborating and building partnerships is the way we overcome this, not by cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world. The UK must play its part.