Sierra Leone — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:32 pm on 29th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Crossbench 7:32 pm, 29th June 2015

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this Question for Short Debate and to the numerous organisations and individuals who have provided briefing material. In the time allotted, I fear that I cannot do justice to the breadth of issues they have raised, so I am particularly glad to see the number and expertise of other noble Lords who will be contributing tonight. I also remind the House of my interests in health and overseas development, as set out in the register.

The Ebola outbreak in west Africa has disappeared from headlines in the United Kingdom, but the devastating effects of that outbreak are still being felt every day by the people of Sierra Leone. For a start, unlike in Liberia, Ebola cases have not disappeared. For the last few weeks, the number of cases has been bouncing along the bottom, as epidemiologists predicted, with up to 15 new cases a week being reported in June, and with a worrying number of those cases coming from unknown transmission chains. Some 1,100 people in Sierra Leone are still under quarantine restrictions, and we are now beginning to tally up the costs, not just of the epidemic itself—not only the 3,900 deaths from Ebola that we know of, and many more that we do not—but in other areas of health, where thousands more are estimated to have lost their lives because of the collapse of the already impoverished health services that existed before Ebola, and the collapse of community trust in those services.

It has been estimated that use of government health services has declined from 80% to 50% of the population since the first Ebola case was identified more than a year ago. Most experts agree that, in that year, more people will have died from the absence of treatment for malaria than from Ebola. The effects on maternal and perinatal mortality are equally if not more devastating. Services for pregnant women have virtually ground to a halt because of the particular risks for healthcare workers in treating women giving birth. There has been a terrible toll of stillbirths. The Maternal and Newborn Health Unit of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and VSO are even now working to bring forward a programme to build again maternity services that in the past were so inadequate that the maternal mortality ratio in Sierra Leone was the worst in the world.

There are also problems in terms of services for HIV and tuberculosis; cholera is always a risk in Sierra Leone; and there have been reports of measles outbreaks as a result of plummeting immunisation rates when patients simply stayed away from clinics. I welcome the mass drug administration programmes for malaria, and the vaccination campaigns for polio and measles that have taken place recently, but the situation remains precarious. Building sustainable universal health coverage in Sierra Leone will be an enormous long-term challenge for a country that had only 100 doctors and 1,100 health workers before the outbreak. Nearly one-third of those health workers contracted Ebola and 224 died during the epidemic.

Beyond health, the effects of the outbreak were far reaching. Schools were closed for nearly a year, and many pupils will not only have lost that part of their education but will never return to school. As so often, girl children have suffered most, with reports of increased sexual exploitation, early marriage and teenage pregnancy. Those girls will have great difficulty in ever establishing independent and free lives for themselves. Agriculture was also impacted and, while showing signs of recovery, needs further technical and other assistance if it is to contribute to economic growth and address the needs of the 35% of children in Sierra Leone who are chronically malnourished.

The effects on the wider economy were devastating—and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, will speak about this. The World Bank estimated that Sierra Leone will have lost $920 million from its projected GDP in 2015, and has revised its estimates of growth from 8.9% to minus 2% this year. Rebuilding that economy will be an enormous challenge, as will getting into place an appropriate tax structure, particularly in relation to the extractive industries, to provide a robust tax base for government spending on health and social services.

I should like to highlight one decision of the UK Government which contributed to the economic problems—halting direct flights to and from the country. I believe, along with the Public Accounts Committee in its report last Session, that the Government were wrong to halt those flights, not least because indirect access to the UK actually makes it more, not less, difficult to track and screen travellers. I strongly support the recommendation of the Public Accounts Committee that direct flights to Sierra Leone should be restored as soon as possible. In its response in March to the Select Committee, the Government said that they would keep the situation under review. I hope that the Minister will tonight give us some cause for optimism that licences to fly direct to Freetown will be restored in the very near future.

I visited Sierra Leone in February this year and saw for myself the commitment of UK volunteers, particularly in the health area, through UK-Med and other agencies, to helping Sierra Leonean colleagues and those from all over the world in the fight against Ebola. I know that many are keen to continue to support the health service in that country so that it can provide resilience against further outbreaks and basic health rights for the population. However, there are a number of issues about how that commitment could be maximised and how the Department of Health and the NHS could better support medical volunteers. They include looking at the impact on training programmes when people leave their jobs for a time, pension contributions, and the possibility of pre-release agreements with employing trusts.

Across the world, in the global response to epidemics such as this, every country, as well as the world community, needs to put in place resilient and immediate measures that can be brought forward in the case of need, and not have the sort of delays we saw with Ebola. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has, along with other colleges, put forward suggestions in this area, as has Dr Oliver Johnson, who led the outstanding work of King’s Health Partners at the Connaught Hospital in Freetown and beyond. I hope that the Minister can tell us that discussions are ongoing between her department and the Department of Health to progress these issues.

Just as the Ebola crisis went much wider than health, so did the UK’s contribution, with crucial programmes delivered by many NGOs, supported by the British public’s generous response to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s first ever health appeal. I particularly highlight the work of young Sierra Leoneans in the wide-ranging community-based social mobilisation programmes which were central to halting transmission through unsafe burial practices and to persuading people to notify the authorities of cases, providing food for families in quarantine, caring for some of the 8,000 thousand children who lost their parents to Ebola and supporting Ebola survivors who suffer both from stigma and from long-term health effects of the disease. No one visiting could fail to be impressed by the work of our High Commission, led by Peter West, the staff of DfID, many of whom put their own lives and families on hold for months at a time, and, of course, the British military presence, which was so crucial to setting up the national emergency response centre and district centres throughout the country.

I also visited the Sierra Leone Parliament when I was in the country, and heard of the challenges in strengthening scrutiny of government and democratic accountability in the complex society, with many parallel power structures, that is Sierra Leone. I know that the CPA UK branch and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy are looking at how they, as partners, can, together with the FCO and DfID, aid this process and support, in particular, women Members of Parliament who feel very estranged from the levers of power in their country.

President Koroma showed real and effective political leadership throughout the crisis, but institutions in the country were put to the test—as, indeed, were international institutions such as the WHO—during Ebola, and no one can deny that there were real problems of both leadership and governance. At the EU meeting in Brussels this year, the leaders of the affected countries recognised the need to improve public administration and financial compliance and requested international support for long-term recovery and development plans for the region.

Just as the challenges for Sierra Leone are multifaceted and its national recovery plan will entail long-term commitment, so are the opportunities for the UK; from our science contributing to the search for vaccines, diagnostics and medicines to health service strengthening; from governance and financial advice to promoting the rights of women and children. Some great collaborative work was carried out during the Ebola outbreak. I hope that the Minister can assure us tonight that Her Majesty’s Government intend to bring all the strands together and put in place a long-term, funded and comprehensive plan of support for Sierra Leone, working alongside its Government and people.