Sierra Leone — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:19 pm on 29th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development 8:19 pm, 29th June 2015

My Lords, I join noble Lords in congratulating and thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for securing this debate, and I commend her on her long-standing commitment to international development and health. All noble Lords’ contributions today have highlighted the passion and commitment that we in the UK place on the challenges and plight faced by those who face such tragic circumstances. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his supportive opening words on the Government’s response, and welcome his noting of our wish to honour those courageous people who put themselves at the forefront of supporting the recovery from such a crisis.

As we continue to work with the Government, the people of Sierra Leone and the region to defeat Ebola, it is right that we come together at this time to discuss the situation on the ground and how the UK is supporting recovery. We recognise the loss of life, and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and other noble Lords that the bravery and personal risk taken by front-line workers in tackling this disease show the need for continuity as we continue.

As noble Lords will be aware, the UK has played a major role in successfully responding to the devastating Ebola virus in Sierra Leone. Ebola case numbers have reduced from a peak of more than 500 in the final week of November 2014 to an average of fewer than 10 new cases a week. That is still 10 cases too many, but the numbers have come down dramatically over the past two months. The UK has shown incredible leadership, mobilised the international community and efforts to tackle Ebola in Sierra Leone and helped to halt the spread of the virus within the region and beyond.

A number of questions have been asked today. Given the time, if I do not manage to get through all the responses I will undertake to write to noble Lords on the questions that have been posed. The challenging circumstances presented by this outbreak of Ebola demonstrated the UK Government’s ability to work together, drawing in—as noble Lords have highlighted today—capacity and expertise from across DfID, the

MoD, the FCO and the Department of Health, delivering impact greater than the sum of its parts. These efforts have not only saved countless lives in west Africa but helped to prevent a health crisis that could have been far deadlier than it was and presented a greater health risk to the UK and the world.

Liberia was the first country to overcome the disease, with the WHO declaring it Ebola-free on 9 May this year. While the epidemic is still not over in Sierra Leone and Guinea, we are well on the way to zero and are acutely focused on finishing the job. President Koroma of Sierra Leone has ordered a renewed drive to accelerate the pace and to get to zero in chiefdoms where the disease is proving to be the most intractable due to community resistance and often very poor living conditions. Surge activities are involving paramount chiefs, traditional healers, women, religious leaders, youths and particularly social mobilisation. We will make every effort over the coming weeks to get to and sustain zero as soon as possible.

Beyond these areas, the vast majority of the country has seen no new cases for weeks, if not months, and recovery planning is getting under way. The Government of Sierra Leone have developed a transition and early recovery plan for six to nine months to get health and education services up and running again and to kick-start economic growth. It focuses on building back better and increasing the role of the private sector in economic development, a point made by a number of noble Lords. I will come to some of those comments if I have time.

I am pleased to say that we have allocated £54 million for early recovery that will focus on these areas, including a focus on women and girls, as was so rightly pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. We are using the upcoming UN Secretary General’s International Ebola Recovery conference on 9 and 10 July to encourage partners who played an important role in tackling the epidemic to help the country to get back on its feet and commit to fund the gaps in the plan. As recovery gets under way, we will work with the Government of Sierra Leone on their longer-term development objectives and shape DfID’s programming in line with those.

I also draw noble Lords’ attention to the important work we are doing to learn from this crisis and improve global health security. During the Ebola crisis, DfID funded research with the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and others to develop new vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics on a scale not seen in previous health crises. This helps to build longer-term resilience against diseases with epidemic potential and supports better identification and understanding of future epidemic and disease threats.

Improved global health security will also benefit from safe, effective and affordable health technologies and strong health systems. In Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone we saw the impact of weak, ineffective health systems and the failure of these countries to meet their obligations under international health regulations. Building effective national health systems is key, and DfID along with other government departments will draw on the Ebola experience to strengthen our work on global health security, which is a prime-ministerial priority. I hope that that gives the noble Lord, Lord Patel, an assurance of our commitment to a longer-term solution.

We have heard some outstanding comments on the challenges that the Ebola crisis has posed for west Africa and globally. We can be proud of how UK citizens from the Armed Forces, the health service and charities, and government officials have supported the people of Sierra Leone to combat the crisis and now begin along the road to recovery.

Before I conclude, I have time to go through some of the questions that have been posed, the first of which was a general group of questions alluded to by almost all noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked about our planning for early recovery and what our support would be. The priority for the UK Government has always been to get to zero cases as soon as possible and to prevent outbreaks in any new countries. The crisis has brought healthcare, education and economic activity to a halt in the affected countries, so we need to try to rebuild them. That is where our priority will remain: on recovery and transition plans, with the £54 million that we have committed. We will mobilise a team of people from McKinsey to work with DfID staff and UK military planners to help the President of Sierra Leone to develop the plan. We will support the building back of better services and help the Government to make the reforms needed for strong and sustainable development.

The UK is the largest bilateral donor to Sierra Leone, and as the Prime Minister set out at the G20 meeting we are committed to supporting long-term recovery across the region. We do not want to make short interventions, and we are supportive of the President’s long-term plan. This is a real moment for change, because we will be able to help to define how international assistance can make the best contribution to tackling poverty and accelerating development over the coming years.

The noble Baroness asked about direct flights. The response from the Government must first and foremost be the safety of the British people. The decision not to commit to direct flights was part of the Government’s overall strategy to mitigate the risk of Ebola entering the UK. The change in the Government’s position is only possible once we are content that there is no risk to the British public and that the risk has been sufficiently reduced.

A number of noble Lords asked about the reform of the WHO and what we are doing. We have been driving WHO reforms since 2010 following the Ebola crisis. We have reassessed ongoing reforms and accelerated progress to improve its effectiveness alongside ongoing improvements in human-resources processes, including the adoption in January of this year of the new staff mobility policy and a much more robust performance management policy. We will continue to highlight with organisations such as the WHO, where we need to, the need to make sure that they are delivering and responding quickly and effectively to countries so they do not have to wait for assistance.

On 7 June this year, the Prime Minister announced that the UK will establish a new group of six to 10 expert staff, mainly infection control specialists and infection control doctors, who will be on permanent standby, ready to help countries respond rapidly to disease outbreaks. We will ensure that the UK’s rapid reaction unit and the deployment of reservists through DfID-funded UK-Med will complement WHO’s global emergency workforce to ensure a co-ordinated response on the ground.

I have run out of time and I have a pile of responses yet to deliver, so I undertake to write to all noble Lords. This is a journey that we need to make together to build a better future for countries such as Sierra Leone.