COVID-19 Pandemic in Latin America - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:24 pm on 20 October 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench 7:24, 20 October 2021

My Lords, Latin America accounts for 8.2% of global population but has experienced a disproportionate 20% of Covid infections and a third of global deaths. The response to Covid has varied enormously within Latin America. In Brazil, the laissez-faire attitude of the Government left everything to a devolved health system, and they actively refused to take any central responsibility or leadership, with President Bolsonaro dismissing Covid as just “a little flu”. This has resulted in Brazil suffering the worst rates of death and infection in the whole of Latin America.

By contrast, Uruguay saw the most effective response by miles, ramping up the test, trace and track systems, avoiding lockdowns and school closures, and achieving some of the lowest infection and death figures in the world—although, during 2021, the beta variant from Brazil has now increased infection rates among young people in particular. I am aware that funding from the UK embassy in Montevideo has helped to fund genomic surveillance and public health monitoring. Is that funding still in place, and could it be replicated in other countries of the region? In El Salvador, the borders were closed quickly, and quarantine was enforced by the police and the military. Containment centres were also set up quickly but proved to be ineffective at infection control because shared accommodation became a vector for spreading the disease. In Panama, it was hoped that transmission rates would be reduced by allowing people out to pharmacies and supermarkets by sex: women one day and men the next. This has been monitored by Google tracking people’s phones. There are no reliable data on whether it was effective, although the infection rate appears to have declined.

But the Covid factor that is characteristic across the region is the way in which the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities. Corruption over the acquisition of ventilators has been notable in Bolivia. In Colombia, there was a 103% increase in domestic violence between March and December 2020. Some 21% of Latin America’s urban population live in slums, informal settlements or precarious housing, where overcrowding and the lack of services are some of the factors that help to spread disease. You cannot be two metres away from someone if your house is only two metres square and for multiple generations.

In Colombia and elsewhere there was already very limited access to healthcare and basic services such as clean drinking water and soap in poor and rural areas, making simple Covid measures such as handwashing very difficult, if not impossible. Similarly, in Peru, the pandemic has exposed chronic weaknesses in the public health system, especially in rural areas such as the Amazon region. The poorest in the population found it hardest to comply with lockdown and social distancing because they rely on daily wages in the informal economy and could not afford not to work, even if they risked infection or knew they were infected. These pressures fall most heavily on women, indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians and peasant farmers. The number of Colombians living in extreme poverty grew by 3.5 million in 2020 alone, and the UN added Colombia to its list of so-called hunger hotspots.

In Peru, too, a further 3.3 million people now live in poverty as a direct result of Covid. Around 2 million lost their jobs, the economy shrank by 11%, and average wages for those with jobs fell by a quarter. Has any audit been done on how the cuts in our overseas development aid spending will affect programmes we have been funding in Latin America to improve health systems and inequalities? In light of the devastating impact of Covid, will the Government consider restoring such funding?

Inequalities have also surfaced in relation to vaccines. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru all participated in clinical trials or storage in exchange for access to the products. Vaccines have been procured through agreements with pharmaceutical firms and through the COVAX scheme. But factors such as purchasing power, population size, delivery infrastructure and political will mean it will take years for vaccination at population level to be achieved—in Paraguay, for example, it will not be until 2024. Is the level of vaccines signed up for under COVAX—which I believe was to get 2 billion doses to the region by the end of 2021—actually on target?

I have two other vaccine-related questions. First, what is the Government’s position on the protection by patents of the intellectual property of the vaccines? There is a WTO waiver for public health emergencies, which was activated for antiretroviral drugs during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Could this be helpful for getting Covid vaccines to Latin America, as well as better technology transfer and support for domestic producers?

Secondly, there is the question of which vaccines are being used. Brazil has AstraZeneca but has also been using Russian and Chinese-produced vaccines which are not approved by the WHO. The main supply of Peru and other countries has been the Chinese Sinopharm. Has any assessment has been made of the restrictions on travel for those with unapproved vaccinations or unrecognised vaccine programmes in relation to the UK’s business relationship with some of our major trading partners in Latin America? Would it be in our own enlightened self-interest to do more to share approved vaccines so that trade, and indeed cultural and educational travel and exchanges, will not be impeded?

Finally, but no less importantly, I want to touch on the impact of Covid on security, crime and human rights in the region. The cumulative impact of Covid has led to widespread civil disruption and riots in some parts of the region. In Colombia in April this year, mass social protests met with horrendous police brutality. Armed groups took advantage of lockdown to terrorise and control communities, including the killing of 177 human rights defenders in 2020 alone. I know that the Government take the UK’s role as the penholder for Colombia at the Security Council seriously, and I would like to know what the Minister thinks can be done to make sure that the peace accord in Colombia will not be destroyed altogether by Covid and its ramifications.

Equally disturbing is the spike in murders and violence generally, including sexual violence, in Mexico. Organised crime appears to have been helped by Covid restrictions. Although lockdown put fewer people on the streets, reducing the demand for drugs and the capacity to smuggle drugs to the US, this led to drug cartels competing more aggressively for business, including by securing allegiance from isolated communities by offering food and medical supplies to establish control in return for their allegiance.

Does the Minister agree that it is in the UK’s economic, diplomatic and security interests for us to be much more proactive? Latin America got just two brief paragraphs in the recent integrated review. Surely the impact of Covid illustrates that a greater level of attention and engagement is needed.

Photo of Baroness Blower Baroness Blower Labour 7:33, 20 October 2021

My Lords, I thank and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on securing this important debate on Latin America, which is of great interest to many across the House for a variety of reasons. As she said, Latin America has just 8.2% of the world’s population, but by February 2021 had recorded more than 650,000 deaths—more than one-quarter of the world total. I think we can be sure that the attitude of and policies pursued by Jair Bolsonaro have been responsible for the huge number of deaths in Brazil. In general, the pandemic has highlighted the inadequacy of public health systems and severe inequality in Latin American society—an aspect of the Covid pandemic in evidence, in terms of equality, in the UK as well, alas. One of the outcomes among Latin American nations may be that higher social spending on health and so on will be called for, which would be no bad thing.

Colombia reacted reasonably quickly in the initial stages of the pandemic, but prolonged lockdown eventually led to a falling away of compliance as people needed to work, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said. In fact, many people have now lost gainful employment. Against the background of a high level of human rights abuses and serious opposition to proposed tax reforms, which would further entrench inequality, many Colombians have faced considerable harm at the hands of state forces in addition to the harm they faced from the pandemic. Armed groups have clearly taken advantage of the lockdown to wreak havoc in communities, with the UN observing huge increases in massacres, which were already all too common in Colombia.

It takes an enormous amount of courage to be a human rights defender, or even an active trade unionist, particularly a teacher trade unionist, in Colombia. The UN mission has called the number of deaths of human rights defenders an epidemic of violence, with 177 individuals killed in 2020. With what we hope will be the gradual subsiding of the pandemic, the focus must return to high-profile condemnation of the violence of the Colombian police and paramilitaries. Will the Minister ensure that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to call for full implementation of the peace process?

Repeated incidents of state violence call into question Colombia’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law, on which the UK-Andean trade deal is based. The Colombian unions and the TUC have called for the suspension of the deal to put pressure on the Colombian Government to address the violation of human rights and to implement in full the 2016 peace agreement so that post-Covid peace in Colombia can be a real prospect.

Photo of Lord Rogan Lord Rogan Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, as the noble Lords, Lord Bethell and Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, have withdrawn, I now call the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench 7:36, 20 October 2021

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, as I, like others this evening, have an affinity with Latin America.

The situation is dire, which is supported by a depressing collection of facts and numbers. The pandemic has had a devastating social impact. Poverty—and extreme poverty, as has been mentioned—has dramatically increased, with inequality having grown throughout the region. The only question I can muster is: what is we can we do to help?

While international trade contracted globally in 2020, it contracted more severely in Latin America. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that there has been a more considerable drop in imports than exports, which has reduced the region’s trade deficit. However, the prospects for recovery are not good. Companies are recording significant losses as commodity prices fall. Generally, exports have fallen by 10% and imports by 13%. Unemployment has risen and businesses have been closed. Public accounts have deteriorated. The pandemic has caused the closure of a staggering 2.7 million Latin American companies, equating to 19% of all companies in Latin America.

The differences between the countries are high. Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Panama, El Salvador, Mexico and Colombia have been the most affected countries, with small businesses and low-skilled workers struggling the hardest. It would be inappropriate not to record that a staggering 600,000 Brazilians, including a disproportionate number of indigenous citizens, have perished. Venezuela has felt the effects of a break in its relationship with Cuba, with doctors emigrating. Women and the youth are among the most affected.

The majority of countries have established instruments of direct help to households, such as the emergency family income in Argentina, the Covid-19 voucher in Chile, the solidarity income in Colombia, the proteger voucher in Costa Rica and the emergency voucher in Brazil. Some countries have been able to take advantage of the boost in their exports of medical and agricultural products. Guatemala and Honduras have benefited from the sales of masks and Costa Rica from those of medical equipment, mainly destined for the United States market.

The all-important remittances from Latin American workers outside the region fell by 19.3% in 2020, according to the World Bank. These incomes are particularly important in Central America. The worsening environment for migrants during the pandemic means that their basic needs are unmet and their social and economic capabilities not realised. In short, Covid-19 has illustrated the urgent need to support the impoverished with aid from overseas.

Photo of Baroness Hooper Baroness Hooper Conservative 7:40, 20 October 2021

My Lords, in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her perseverance in getting a time slot for this debate, I also support all she said about the prevalence, consequences and challenges posed by the pandemic throughout Latin America. She underlined in particular the social and security aspects. I agree not only with her, but with the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, that the overall picture is dire and depressing.

In my three minutes, I would like to refer in particular to the three countries with which I am engaged as a trade envoy, namely Panama, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. I was appointed just before lockdown. Inevitably, Covid and the restrictions of lockdown have affected any attempts to embark on promotional trade activities in both directions. It is only very recently that Costa Rica has come off the red list of countries which we cannot visit and from which we cannot receive visitors. It came off the list with two other Central American countries, Honduras and Guatemala. The three countries are very preoccupied with the issue of the red list.

Tourism, of course, is vital to the economies of these three countries and to wider Latin America. In particular, eco-tourism is vital to Costa Rica. As the Minister well knows, Costa Rica is recognised as the greenest economy of the region, and of the whole of Latin America, so it is of the utmost importance to facilitate travel as soon as possible, not only for the Costa Rican economy but to support travel operators in this country, many of which are small and medium-sized businesses specialising in areas such as eco-tourism.

The latest figures I have from Costa Rica show that 70% of the population have had one dose of the vaccine and 40% have had two doses. The figures vary slightly—those I received from the Library are slightly different. However, those are quite impressive figures and perhaps account for the fact that Costa Rica was removed from the red list. I should also mention that AstraZeneca opened its new headquarters for the whole region in Costa Rica last year—a very important link.

The fact that Costa Rica is off the red list leaves me with Panama and the Dominican Republic. These countries also need to be able to open up to tourism and trade. We had a Zoom meeting with parliamentarians from Panama this afternoon and were told that 80% of the population have been double-jabbed. There have been recent discussions and information flows at a high level, which, I trust, will lead to a reassessment of its position.

I am sorry about the timing, but since two people have dropped out, I thought I might have an extra minute or so. The Dominican Republic is puzzled to be left on our red list when tourists from the United States seem to have no problem other than the need for a double vaccination certificate and vice versa. I hope that my noble friend will be able to reassure us of a speedy reassessment of the situation affecting Latin America, in particular the countries I have mentioned.

Photo of Lord Loomba Lord Loomba Crossbench 7:45, 20 October 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for securing this important debate. As we consider the devastating consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic in Latin America, it is important to bear in mind that, due to deeply ingrained cultural attitudes, some are better placed to cope than others.

Gender discrimination affects women and girls and, as in most other parts of the world, widows in particular face additional hurdles. Rural widows who find themselves left alone to fend for their families are often not permitted to take over livelihoods due to the highly gendered nature of farm work and agricultural supply chains. In Colombia, for example, the arrangements for allocating the property of an intestate husband do not in practice allow for the widow maintaining control of the family farm or business—that is, providing for their own economic autonomy.

There are examples in parts of Latin America of disinheritance, whereby widows are prevented by male relatives from inheriting property to which they are legally entitled. Widows’ circumstances put them at high risk of poverty and additional acute direct threats to their well-being.

As regards any support we are able to provide, whether in vaccine distribution or other overseas development aid, can the Minister give an assurance that the Government will take these underlying inequalities into account to make sure that support is targeted first at the most vulnerable?

Photo of Lord Moynihan Lord Moynihan Conservative 7:47, 20 October 2021

My Lords, I thank and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and echo all that she has said this evening. She gave an excellent speech and I congratulate her on getting the time available to speak on this important subject. There is all too little focus on the huge impact Covid has had on South America and, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said, on the dire situation it has created, not least among women and the youth, who have been very badly affected because of the inequalities that have grown in those societies.

I talked to somebody who worked for a good while with Goni Sánchez de Lozada, when he was President of Bolivia, on social and economic policies and development programmes in his country.

I have to be brief this evening, although I note that the Clock has not started yet. I want to pick up on what the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, said. She highlighted that the pandemic highlights public health systems and that funding should concentrate on public health systems. I just want very briefly, in a minute, to state that I hope that when it comes to recovery programmes, the Government will prioritise public health support in Latin America. That extends beyond many of the points that the noble Baroness wisely raised and I hope were well heard by the Government.

Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that I believe that sport, recreation and active lifestyles can help very much in recovery programmes. They can go to the heart of good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality—which is critical in any recovery programme—decent work opportunities, growth and reducing the inequalities which the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, rightly spoke about.

It was interesting that, in the build-up to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the IOC, through the UN, encouraged all member states to include sport and physical activity in their recovery programmes from Covid-19; to integrate sport and physical activity into national strategies for sustainable development, taking note of the contributions sport, physical activity and an active lifestyle make to health; and to promote safe sport as a contributor to the health and well-being of individuals and communities.

That is the message I want to leave the House with in this debate. I urge the Minister to incorporate those policies and aspirations into the additional programmes that we now need to put in place to help recovery in South America, which is so vitally needed.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 7:50, 20 October 2021

My Lords, to reassure the Government Whip, I will not seek to take advantage of the flexibility on timings this evening. I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins—I consider her my noble friend—for securing this debate and introducing it so well. She has a very consistent and strong interest in this region. As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, indicated, this is an area which is debated far too infrequently in this House.

The world saw a differing approach to a global pandemic in that region, with politics over health, open boundaries and borders and minimal economic assistance, even when this was fiscally possible. I watched President Bolsonaro’s speech at UNGA with an element of horror, and I note the legal challenges that he now faces in his own country.

Information today from Our World in Data shows that his approach has seen 604,000 people die in Brazil, with deaths likely to be underreported. In Mexico, there have been 285,000 deaths; in Peru, there have been 200,000. Peru has had 6,000 deaths per million people of its population, compared with 752 in Canada. Perhaps the most startling figure I read was that, while the UK has seen a horrific 11% of excess deaths during the pandemic, Mexico has had 40%, Ecuador 49% and Peru an astonishing 93%.

The vaccination rollout has also been patchy. Data from today interestingly shows a full vaccination rate for Uruguay and Chile—higher than in the UK—but Brazil has only half of its population vaccinated and Peru 42.4%. The impact on that country has been enormous. The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper—whom I also consider a noble friend—and I visited there together and have both made many calls for greater UK interest in that country since the visit.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, who had hoped to speak this evening, was in touch with the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and myself. We all share a concern over the ongoing economic impact. At the end of last year, an estimated 231 million people in Latin America were living in poverty, the worst level for 15 years. Data from a World Bank report published on 8 June this year forecast how countries would return to pre-pandemic levels, if at all, by 2022. It suggested that advanced economies would be 0.1% smaller, but medium-income countries would be 4.1% smaller.

So the need for UK involvement at this time of crisis and the opportunity for investment and trade into the future are obvious. Can the Minister therefore explain why UK ODA support for Peru has fallen from £3.7 million in 2019-20 to just £1.1 million in the year going forward—slashed by two-thirds? It was even more alarming to read on 10 October in the Financial Times an anonymous briefing on the new Foreign Secretary’s priorities which said:

“Latin America is one region that is expected to fall down her list of priorities, according to senior British diplomats.”

Can the Minister confirm that this anonymous briefing was not correct, that the region will not fall down the priority list for the new Foreign Secretary, and that we will honour two centuries of very close relationships and ensure that this region, which is facing a huge economic crisis, will now be a UK priority?

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 7:54, 20 October 2021

My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for initiating this debate. We are looking at a tale of two worlds here. In the first week of August, 85 million Covid vaccines had been administered in the United Kingdom. In Paraguay, the situation could not have been more different. The President of Paraguay addressed the nation amidst frustration that only 4% had been vaccinated. He told his people in simple terms, “We bet on COVAX mechanisms and COVAX did not work”. I hope the Minister will say something about that.

Two months on, the figure in Paraguay has risen from 4% to 26%. A night-time curfew remains in place and those who have received vaccinations are crediting China for Sinovac and Russia for Sputnik V, as the noble Baroness said.

Latin America has been especially hard-hit by Covid-19. It has 8% of the world’s population but over 16% of global cases in the top six countries alone and, except for Chile, the highest number of deaths. Reasons include poor health infrastructure, the inability of workers in the informal economy to self-isolate and the lack of decisive, co-ordinated government action.

The ILO estimated that, by the end of 2020, employment across the region had fallen from 57% to 52%. It also illustrated how women and young people had been adversely affected, describing the results as

“a time bomb that could affect social and political stability”.

Here I highlight the point made by my noble friend Lady Blower on the impact on the peace process, particularly in Colombia. Will the Minister tell us a bit more about how we are influencing the situation there, to ensure that the peace process is kept on track?

I hope the Minister will also address the issue of the global vaccination effort and what we are doing to ensure that we donate surplus doses, as well as develop a co-ordinated investment programme for new facilities.

What is the Minister’s strategy to support these countries in their recovery, including through international development and aid, which the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, highlighted, and in addition to our trade policy? On trade policy, will the Minister address the fact that, as my noble friend mentioned, the UK’s trade agreement with Colombia did not mention human rights at all and was criticised by trade unionists both there and here? I hope he can reassure us on that and on future trade relationships.

The fundamental question is: what is the United Kingdom doing to ensure that a multilateral system is in place to ensure that, when the next global crisis comes, countries work together?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 7:57, 20 October 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for tabling this important debate and for her continued interest in the region. She made a very compelling speech. I thank all noble Lords for their insightful contributions.

This is a timely debate. While some countries are, happily, starting to see a return to a more normal life, Latin America is the region hardest hit by the pandemic. The effect has been devastating. While home to just under one-tenth of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for nearly one-third of all reported Covid-19 deaths and one-fifth of confirmed cases. Covid-19 has increased poverty, plunged the region into recession and set back economic growth by a decade in some countries. That, in turn, impacts the region’s health and education systems and, worryingly, it also increases reticence about the climate change commitments that much of the world is signing up to.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, focused particularly on the process of recovery. The UK is playing its part to help the region recover. In answer to her question, we are championing access to vaccines through COVAX and encouraging scientific exchange in areas such as genome sequencing. We are mobilising climate finance at COP 26 and pursuing trade agreements so that our shared future can flourish.

Latin America is an important partner for the UK’s global ambitions. From climate change and nature, economics and trade, democracy and human rights, we work with the region on countless priorities set out in the integrated review. With many countries aligned with UK values, three members of the G20 and Mexico, currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council—Brazil will join in January—we have strong strategic allies right across Latin America.

The Foreign Secretary visited Mexico in the first week of her new role. She held discussions to strengthen our trading relationship, deepen our economic partnership and tackle climate change together, in support of our shared values.

I have recently returned from a trip to Peru and Colombia, where I saw for myself the devastating impact of Covid in the region. The pandemic has plunged Latin America into an economic recession. Regional GDP fell last year by 7% and predicted growth is below what we would expect from emerging economies. In two decades, before the start of the pandemic, the number of people living in poverty in the region had fallen by nearly half, but Covid has driven a significant reversal of that progress. By the end of last year, 78 million people were estimated to be living in extreme poverty in the countries of Latin America—an increase of 8 million people since the pandemic began.

Where inequalities existed before, the pandemic has cut the deepest. An increase in unemployment in the region has hit the most vulnerable the hardest, including women, young workers and migrants. It has worsened the plight of many of the nearly 6 million refugees and migrants who have fled the Maduro regime in Venezuela. The majority have sought safe haven in neighbouring countries where, notwithstanding the welcome that they have been given, many go hungry. Mandatory school closures have lasted longer than in any other region of the world. Around 100 million students in Latin America have been affected. Some, especially the most vulnerable, may never make up this loss in education. The World Bank estimates that this could cost the region $1.7 trillion in lost future income.

Many countries were ill-prepared for virtual education, and a lack of access to the internet for many, especially those in rural areas, widened the gap even more between those from the poorest households and the most fortunate. Health systems are being pushed to their limits. In Mexico and Colombia, the recent third wave put pressure on hospitals that were already exhausted from the last 18 months. In Peru, which as we have heard has suffered the worst cumulative per capita death rate globally, the pandemic has pushed the healthcare system to breaking point.

The only way that the world is going to bring this pandemic under control is through widespread immunisation, using all available safe and effective vaccines, and the UK is playing its part. We are at the forefront of the international response to Covid-19, through our commitments to COVAX, Gavi and the World Health Organization. The UK’s early support of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been instrumental, and that vaccine is now produced locally in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. The three countries are expected to produce around 250 million doses for the region this year.

Two-thirds of the population of Latin America have now received their first dose of the vaccine, up from just a fifth two months ago. In some countries the effects of the vaccine are beginning to bring cases down, and the overall picture in the region is finally improving. I was delighted that a fortnight ago we were able to move most Latin and Caribbean countries off our coronavirus list. However, some countries remain vulnerable to further waves of Covid-19, and those with low vaccination rates are particularly vulnerable.

In response to a question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, all Latin American countries that are no longer on the red list, apart from Brazil and Chile, are awaiting verification of their vaccine certification. Until international standards are agreed globally, we will review each country’s certificate to ensure that it meets our minimum data requirements. She also asked about accelerating patents, as in the case of the AIDS retrovirals. I am afraid that I cannot give her an answer. The question is best directed to the Department of Health, and I will convey it to the department and will respond as soon as I can.

This is one of the reasons why we will continue to share our learning from the UK rollout with partners in the region and, most importantly, work together to control new variants. In Brazil, for example, we are doing this with a new variant assessment platform, working in partnership with the Brazilian Government to ensure that UK expertise helps to boost genomic sequencing capability in the country. We hope to work with more countries in the region to support this work and strengthen sequencing capability, so that we all have a better understanding of the variants as they arise.

The recent changes to the red list demonstrate that the UK is taking a scientific, country-by-country approach to these decisions. I recognise the real personal and economic impact for many people living in red list countries—a point made well by my noble friend Lady Hooper—who want to travel, who depend on the tourism industry for their livelihoods, who are businesspeople, students and more. The decision to keep countries on the red list, or to move them off it, is one that affects us far more widely: not just in our trade and prosperity partnerships but in our ability to deliver an in-person and inclusive COP 26 next month. We want to work alongside important partners, many of them in Latin America—Brazil, Mexico and Colombia—while also ensuring the safety and security of all participants.

As the scientific picture changes, we will continue to keep the list under regular review, but our priority must be to protect the health of the UK public. We will do that by continuing to take full account of scientific evidence, while balancing the advantages and risks of reopening our borders.

In the meantime, we are working with partners in the Latin American region to help them recover and rebuild. The UK is not only supporting vaccine supply but has been working with countries such as Brazil and Mexico to strengthen their health systems through the UK’s Better Health programme. I saw for myself in Peru how UK companies’ expertise is supporting the country to rebuild schools, hospitals and river defences after the devastating effects of flooding caused by El Niño four years ago.

Even through the pandemic, the UK has been working with countries across the region to help them to become more resilient and adapt to these extreme weather events. Through the UK PACT Green Recovery Challenge Fund, for example, the UK has funded projects in Brazil, Peru and Argentina, supporting greening financial systems and nature-based solutions. That includes deforestation-free cattle ranching in Peru, promoting green finance for sustainable development in Argentina and building climate risk assessment into the credit operations of Brazilian development banks.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I hope I was about to answer the noble Lord’s point about our support for Peru—a point that he made well. In 2020—last year—the UK signed a second Government-to-Government agreement with Peru to support the delivery of what we estimate will be a £1.6 billion infrastructure programme to rebuild schools and hospitals in the northern regions affected by El Niño-related flooding and landslides in 2017. UK businesses are already providing technical assistance while transferring the required knowledge to Peruvian experts so they can develop similar projects in future. This is an example—I do not pretend to be an expert but I did witness much of this—of the UK using its skills and relatively small sums of finance to leverage far greater support for that country. If the noble Lord does not mind, I will come to a broader point about future support for Peru in just a few moments, and I will combine that with an answer to the noble Baroness as well.

Ahead of COP next month, we have especially encouraged ambitious climate commitments. Latin America suffers the severe weather effects of climate change just as surely as its rainforests hold so many of the solutions. The region must therefore make its voice heard at COP 26 in support of ambitious climate targets.

I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, who mentioned Costa Rica. It may not have been, in which case I apologise for not having made a note of who made that comment. Whoever it was, I strongly agree with them. I apologise; it was my noble friend Lady Hooper. She is absolutely right: Costa Rica provides an example for the world. It has managed to incorporate concern for and a focus on the environment with economic growth. It managed to double its canopy in just over a generation and has grown its economy at the same time. It has gone from pretty low in the league table to being pretty high in the region, and I do not think that is a coincidence.

Colombia, which I recently visited, is also showing extraordinary leadership on both climate change and the environment, not only in addressing, halting and reversing forest loss in the Amazon but in combining those efforts with attempts to strengthen the peace process that began just a few years ago. Again, I saw examples—

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench

The Minister spoke about the need to approve a certificate from Colombia. Is he able to say whether the UK does that in isolation from others around the world, or is it that we are part and parcel of a global approach in approving, for example, the certificate specifically from Colombia?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the noble Viscount for his question. I hope I am not wrong in saying that the UK has now recognised the vaccine certificates for Colombia; that has happened. Colombia remains on the red list, but this means that when it comes off that list, it ought to be a relatively smooth transition. I hope I will not have to correct the record on that, but I do not think I will.

I was amazed by some of the projects that are happening in Colombia, which combine efforts to raise living standards and reinforce the peace process by involving those people who are very much involved in conflict in this global endeavour to restore and protect nature, and which are doing so in an extraordinarily successful way. I really hope we will be able to step up our efforts in that region and beyond in support of a series of truly world-leading initiatives.

Increasing trade in the region is also essential to overcome the unprecedented economic challenges caused by the pandemic. Opening up markets, unlocking business opportunities and sharing British business expertise will benefit both the region and of course the UK. The UK has negotiated continuity trade agreements in the region with Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and the countries of Central America.

In Mexico, we will soon be starting negotiations on a new ambitious free trade agreement to support jobs, opportunities and prosperity right across the UK in industries that will shape the future of the global economy and secure better access for British goods and services. Our ambition to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is also important for UK interests in the region.

The UK is acutely aware of the devastating impacts that the pandemic has had on the lives of many individuals and the economies of countries across Latin America. It has widened inequalities and pushed back—

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I know the Minister is running out of time, but he did say he was going to address this, so I would be happy if he will write to me with the forward ODA plans. However, I would be very happy if he would say, on the record, at the Dispatch Box, that the unattributed briefing to the Financial Times that Latin America is now lower down on the Foreign Secretary’s priorities is wrong. If he can say that, I would be very happy.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. The rule is that we do not respond to leaks of that sort—actually, I do not know the leak he is referring to—but I can tell him that it is a priority of mine as a Minister in the Foreign Office and someone with a particular concern for climate change and the environment that we ramp up our support for those initiatives that I just described, not just in Colombia but beyond. I can only say that I sincerely hope that the briefing is wrong—I believe it is wrong and I think it would be wrong, in fact, were that to be the case. It was a point I was going to make to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, in terms of our involvement and our offer for Colombia, Peru and the wider Amazon region.

I will briefly address a couple of points. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, that we are doing what we can to integrate our diplomacy and our development programmes to deliver a much bigger and better impact. I make my final point to the noble Baroness, Lady Blower. Of course, we are appalled by the reports of human rights violations and the deaths of environmental defenders in Colombia and elsewhere.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

And trade unionists, of course. While these are the result of criminality within that country—a legacy, perhaps, of some of the difficulties that are beginning to subside, but nevertheless have really wracked Colombia for some time—these are not the consequences of malignant action by government. I raised this issue when I spoke to President Duque a week or so ago and it was very clear to me that he and his Government are doing what they can to get to grips with the issues that the noble Baroness raised so well. Although it is not entirely clear how we can help, certainly the offer from the UK is on the table to provide what support we can to enable the Government to get to grips with the problem, which is clearly tragic on so many levels. My colleagues and I raise these issues on a regular basis, but I believe that by supporting some of the initiatives that I hinted at earlier, albeit briefly, we have an opportunity in the UK to provide very meaningful support to the Government of Colombia in strengthening and extending and making that peace process endure.

On that note, I thank noble Lords for their contributions—

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench

Before the noble Lord sits down, will he undertake to write to me with answers to the few questions I asked that he has not been able to cover in his reply?

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I do apologise: I thought I had left this debate with a clean sheet, but I clearly have not, so I undertake to scan the record tomorrow and to respond to any questions from the noble Baroness that remain unanswered. I pay tribute to her for her speech, for initiating this debate and for her work in the region.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, that concludes the Question for Short Debate business.