Covid-19 Vaccines: Nepal

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 6th July 2021.

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Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall 7:00 pm, 6th July 2021

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for chairing this debate to close our proceedings today. I thank all hon. Members who are unable to intervene on me today because of constraints of time and virtual participation; I especially thank my hon. Friends the Members for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), and Mrs Miller for their support and for their interest in the debate.

As chair of the Nepal all-party parliamentary group, I have spoken about the country many times in this House. I say much the same every time: Nepal is a great ally and friend of the UK, and has been for more than two centuries. The Nepali diaspora and the Gurkhas have contributed to the safety of this country, to our economy and to our cultural life throughout all that time. I talk about the wonderful country that I have visited many times, the friendly and welcoming people, Nepal’s place in the world—pressed between India and China, at the top of the world on the Himalayan plateau —and its development into a democracy with Government scrutiny and elections since 2008.

I was honoured to host Prime Minister Oli here only a few years ago, when he met the then Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, Mrs May and my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn. No one knew of covid-19 then; discussions were about strengthening Parliament, development, trade and climate change. Everyone promised to help in 2019—they committed support and proclaimed friendship—but now, when Nepal is in dire need of vaccines, we hide behind international efforts and behind global schemes and platitudes.

The situation in Nepal is severe—indeed, it is a crisis. Amnesty International has said:

“The country’s health care system is teetering, with hospitals reaching capacity, and overstretched, hopelessly under-resourced staff are unable to keep up with overwhelming demand”.

UNICEF’s staff on the ground have reported:

“Within a short time, cases were just climbing up and up…We were stretched to the very limit, trying to do the best with the resources we had.”

More than 600,000 people have officially been infected with covid-19 and more than 9,000 people have died following a major surge in infections—similar to that in India, but less reported on. More than 50% of deaths have been among over-60s. In May, the country had the highest positivity rate in the world, at 47%. The situation is even worse, because the lack of tests and the serious under-reporting hide the real figures, but we know that the country’s weak and fragile health system has been totally overwhelmed, that patients are unable to access care and that desperate shortages of oxygen across the country claim lives.

Health experts have warned of an imminent third wave that will cause further havoc for an acutely under-vaccinated population: less than 3% of Nepalis have been fully vaccinated, and a further 6.3% have received only one dose. The lack of a second dose puts 1.4 million vulnerable Nepalis at high risk of getting covid once again and risks invalidating their first dose. Partial immunisation also increases the risk of mutations emerging, which is a problem not just for Nepal, but for everyone in the world: we have seen the damage that the delta variant has done and continues to do. New mutations are a risk to everyone, vaccinated or not.

Most older people and those in vulnerable categories received their first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in March, but there are no supplies available to provide their second dose. They were due their second dose between 28 June and 5 July. The clock on the time to administer the second dose has not just started ticking; it has almost run out. The supply shortage happened because of severe problems in global supply due in part to the crisis in India, problems with COVAX and an over-dependency on a small number of vaccine producers whose supplies had been purchased by richer countries.

In response to the covid crisis in India, the export of vaccines from India largely ceased, affecting both a deal that Nepal had agreed to purchase vaccines directly and also severely impacting on the supply available to COVAX. While COVAX had forecast to deliver nearly 2 million vaccines between March and May, it was able to deliver only 348,000. But the crisis has happened, and the causes, while sad, are now a fact. It is what we can do that matters.

I will pose three questions to the Minister. First, we know the UK has a large supply of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines and could donate the 1.4 million vaccines needed. This would represent 0.3% of all the vaccines ordered by the UK, and represent just three days of the UK’s roll-out. We can act unilaterally. We know the Prime Minister is proud of global Britain. Will he put the medicine where his mouth is?

Secondly, the Prime Minister, at the beginning of last month, committed to 5 million doses being sent “in the coming weeks”—his phrase, not mine. Nepal is a prime candidate to receive some of those. Will the Minister commit to Nepal receiving some of those doses and offer us an actual date for delivery?

Thirdly, COVAX is welcome, it is a good initiative and it is the right thing to do, but today it is not delivering because it does not have enough supply. What steps and on what timetable will the Government much more rapidly donate the promised vaccines to reach vulnerable people across the world, and how will we use our power overseas to encourage other countries to do the same and meet their international obligations?

I wrote to the Foreign Secretary at the end of May about this pressing need for vaccines, about the millions of lives at risk and about the crisis in Nepal. I wrote with other Members from across this House and from the other place. The response from his Department continues to talk about COVAX facing all the problems I have already outlined, followed by the line that

“this will be sufficient to vaccinate 70% of the population of Nepal once supplies allow.”

Once supplies allow—that is the heart of the problem, because supplies do not allow. Some 1.4 million older and vulnerable people need their second dose, and supplies do not allow. We can change that, but will the Minister and the Government have the courage to live up to a global Britain brand?