Sierra Leone — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:14 pm on 29th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 8:14 pm, 29th June 2015

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for initiating this important debate.

The Government’s response to Ebola has been positive, providing more than £200 million for treatment, facilities, expediting NHS staff who have heroically volunteered, helping to finance trials, and developing new treatments and vaccines for Ebola. The role of the volunteers has been significant, and I, too, very much welcome the Government’s decision to provide a new medal that will recognise their bravery and hard work.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world and had one of the most fragile health systems. Over decades, it has had insufficient investment in infrastructure, the healthcare workforce, the health information system, and medical supplies and equipment. Therefore, has the department, in considering the lessons of the outbreak, reversed or rethought any planned funding cuts to Sierra Leone?

Universal health coverage can make countries more resilient to health concerns such as Ebola before they become widespread emergencies. I therefore welcome the clear commitment given by Ministers in the House in recent debates to support universal health coverage, free at the point of access, in the language of the health goals in the forthcoming negotiations over the SDGs.

Last week, I attended a meeting with Professor Chris Whitty, chief scientific adviser to DfID. A key part of the discussion was the impact of Ebola on other diseases, highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. It is clear that the gains made against malaria, for example, are at risk as health systems are pushed to breaking point and people avoid using them because they fear contracting Ebola. As we have also heard, many children have missed out on routine vaccination services, and since 2014 measles outbreaks have been reported in the country, mostly among children under five. I, too, welcome the commencement of mass vaccination programmes, including those for measles and polio for children under five, which is going into all districts and should benefit more than 1.3 million children. However, what steps have been taken to ensure that we are offering other health services alongside the strategies for containing and eliminating the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone?

According to Save the Children, nearly half the population of Sierra Leone is under the age of 18, and the impact of the Ebola crisis on their lives now and on their future opportunities has been far-reaching: no school, loss of family members and friends to the virus, and changing roles and responsibilities in the home and community. What steps has the department taken to support the Government of Sierra Leone in developing a comprehensive strategy aimed at getting the country back on track to meet development targets?

As we have heard in the debate, building the economy is another critical factor. The impacts of the Ebola crisis are likely to linger well into the future, and economic recovery will hinge on understanding which sectors and groups need the most support to get back on their feet, as highlighted by my noble friend Lord Giddens. Private-sector investment is critical, and it is good to see the CDC leading the way on this. However, when supporting the private sector, prioritising those industries that provide much-needed infrastructure to the health system, such as communications and energy providers, is important.

One other clear lesson highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has been the vital role of community engagement, which all too often has been regarded as a soft and relatively non-technical add-on to medical interventions; the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, also highlighted this. The Social Mobilisation Action

Consortium brought together BBC Media Action, Centers for Disease Control, FOCUS 1000, GOAL and Restless Development, all funded by DfID. Through working with young volunteers, community and religious leaders and partner radio stations covering every district in the country, it has achieved tangible behaviour change around safe burials, early treatment and the social acceptance of Ebola survivors. I urge the Minister to take the opportunity of this community engagement infrastructure and the large-scale behaviour change achieved in this crisis to address other issues such as child marriage, teenage pregnancy and female genital mutilation.

If we are to stop this threat, we must continue to support the Government of Sierra Leone to develop their capacity, address corruption and ensure that they have the technical and administrative support to work effectively.