Andrew Bridgen speaks in the debate on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) pandemic prevention and preparedness treaty and accompanying amendments to the international health regulations, to raise his objections to signing up to treaties that would empower the WHO’s director-general to impose sweeping, legally binding directives on member states overriding UK sovereignty.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Ind)
I welcome the opportunity to debate this topic. I have been calling for such a debate for some months and thank the 156,000 electors who have allowed us to have it.
The pandemic treaty must be viewed in conjunction with the proposed amendments to the international health regulations. As George Santayana said, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. I have some severe worries that the lessons of the last pandemic have not been learned by the WHO itself, and that we are in danger of giving it more powers to enable it to overreach itself and repeat those catastrophic mistakes.
I will start by talking about the WHO itself. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) pointed out, it was founded in 1948 as a specialised agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. It consists of 194 member states—basically the whole of the UN membership excluding Lichtenstein and the Holy See. It was based originally on a WHO constitution that is still there today, but that will be fundamentally changed by the two instruments that are in the pipeline following the covid-19 pandemic.
The WHO is domiciled in Geneva and so has special status. Its employees are exempt from tax and they and their families all have diplomatic immunity. It is indeed a supranational body, unelected and unaccountable. I think my constituents would fear that.
How is the WHO set up? Well, it has something called the World Health Assembly, which meets yearly in Geneva. The WHA is the legislative and supreme decision-making body of the WHO. It elects the secretary general and the executive board and votes on the policy of the WHO. The current chairperson of the World Health Assembly of the WHO is a gentleman by the name of Harsh Vardhan. In 2021, the Indian Medical Association—the Indian version of the BMA, and the largest association of doctors in India—issued a statement objecting to Vardhan, who was endorsing Coronil, a product that was being made in India. The IMA questioned the ethics of the Health Minister—Dr Vardhan was the Health Minister of India at that time—in the release of a fabricated and unscientific product on to the people of India. He has since gone on to become chairperson of the WHA, which will preside over this new treaty, which will sit before every Government in the world. Given that he resigned from the Cabinet in India over that controversy, whyever has he been trusted with greater responsibility? It seems that he has failed upwards, like many at the WHO and the WHA.
The original ideals of the WHO were completely laudable. The WHO is to serve the health of the people, governed by its member states, which will implement health policy in the interests of their people. Under article 3 of the international health regulations—before they are amended—state sovereignty and the rule of law will be respected. People’s self-determination will be fully respected. All human rights, conventions and other Acts that countries have joined up to will be respected. That is protected under article 54 of the original regulations on human rights.
Who is funding the WHO now? It is funded like many of our regulators in the UK: the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency is 86% funded by industry sources, and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, in its members’ personal declarations, declared more than £1 billion of interests in big pharma, the thing it was set up to regulate. That undermines public confidence. The WHO is no longer anything like majority-funded by its member states—the ones it is seeking to control. It is 86% funded by external sources.
I am not sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) is correct. The UK is not the second-largest donor, but the third-largest. The second-largest donor after Germany is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and I think Gavi is the fifth, so if we add those together, they are the biggest donors to the WHO. We have to ask: why are they doing this? They are also the biggest investors in pharmaceuticals and the experimental mRNA technology that proved so profitable for those who proposed and produced it during the last pandemic. Indeed, the WHO said that the contributions of member states to WHO funds
“have been capped and today account for only 16% of WHO’s total budget”,
“an increasing share of funding to WHO coming as voluntary contributions where donors direct funding according to their priorities.”
Well, their priorities might well not be the priorities of my constituents in North West Leicestershire, or the electorate in the UK, but he who pays the piper calls the tune.
The WHO is promoting the influence of private-public partnerships. It promotes that on its websites to the point where it is pay to play. Anyone can buy influence at the WHO; it will just cost them money. When it comes to consulting, the WHO’s own internal report—its survey evaluation in its final report on 23 May 2022—said that the various interest groups have more input to WHO policy than the member states. The WHO’s own figures say that the member states only participation was 40% of the input, whereas 60% came from non-member states and 276 stakeholders.
It is clear that there is a strong external influence on the policy of the WHO, an entity whose amendments to the International Health Regulations and the pandemic treaty will come to pass by May 2024 if this House does nothing and does not vote. Doing nothing is not an option: it will not go away.
The WHO’s intermediate study says that the WHO is an international organisation created as a sub-agency of the United Nations for the objective of obtaining the “highest possible level of health” for all people, but at what cost? What cost democracy? What cost to individual freedoms? It is now 80% funded by non-member states, and it is heavily influenced. During the pandemic, it took extra powers, such as the fact that it could define information. It took on a position—and this will be enacted in law, and binding, in those two new instruments —that the WHO has the ability to say what is disinformation.
When anybody says that the science is settled on any issue, I suggest that this House would smell a rat straight away. The science is never settled: it is always open for modification and for new things to be discovered and theses to be refined. The WHO is saying that it will be the arbiter of what the science is, and that cannot be right. It is a bit like someone saying that the market has changed—well, in my experience it never has. That is a huge grab of power. The two instruments—the pandemic treaty and the amendments to the international health regulations—are progressing in parallel.
I am really worried whether colleagues have actually read the treaty, because clearly when we take out the words “not binding” through an amendment, it becomes binding. These are binding treaties: if we do nothing, they are binding—legally binding across all the nations. They bring in an idea called “One Health”, which extends the ability of the director-general of the WHO to call a public health emergency of international concern—which, incidentally, is abbreviated to FAKE. It says that he can bring in these powers on the suspicion or risk of an international incident. It does not even have to be a pathogen affecting humans; it can affect animals. It could be because of the environment or an increase in the levels of carbon dioxide.
I suggest that right hon. and hon. Members read the treaty. It is a massive extension of powers. At the drop of a hat, one man—Mr Tedros—can call for massive powers for the WHO. Not only will he call for them; when he takes the powers, he will decide when the pandemic or emergency is over and when he will give the powers back to this House, where elected representatives are supposed to be representing the interests of our constituents. All that will be suspended.
While we are talking about Mr Tedros, I remind the House that this gentleman will be deciding the fate of the world, because it will be in his gift to declare emergencies. Look at the conduct of the WHO during the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 83 individuals who were working for the WHO sexually abused local women, including the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl. It was all covered up. There was a leaked document from the WHO, which would have been in front of Mr Tedros’s committee. A confidential UN report submitted to the WHO last month concluded that the managers’ handling of a case did not violate WHO sexual exploitation policies because the woman concerned was not a beneficiary of WHO aid, as she did not receive any humanitarian support. That is completely unacceptable, if those are the rules of an organisation that will be deciding whether my constituents are locked down for six months or three months, and whether they can go and see their grannies. I do not think it is acceptable.
The proposed new treaties would compress the mandatory reporting time for Governments to report a possible risk to public health to the WHO to 72 hours, and Mr Tedros will make a decision. That is far too little time for any meaningful research to be done on what the real risk is, and it would potentially lead to lots of false alarms and unnecessary disruption. The two proposed instruments seek to take huge powers away from this Parliament and every other Parliament around the world, and they need to be considered very carefully. Sticking our heads in the sand will not do it, and it will not do for my constituents. If we have learned anything from the vote that we had in 2016, it is that people in this country do not want to be ruled by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats, and there is no one more unaccountable and unelected than people in the WHO. They do not pay tax, and they and their families have immunity from prosecution because they have diplomatic immunity. They are also under the huge financial interests of whoever wishes to fund them.
Many experts are now saying that the two proposed instruments would fundamentally reset the relationship between citizens and sovereign states—not just in this country, but around the whole world. The WHO is an unelected, unaccountable and top-down supranational body, and the treaties would empower its director-general to impose sweeping, legally binding directions on member states. The WHO would have the power to force companies in this country or any other country to manufacture certain medical treatments and to export them to other countries. It would have the power to shut down any business in this country, regardless of what local people think or even what this Parliament thinks.
The proposed treaties would take away all the protections that being in a democracy offers, and they would take away article 3 of the original WHO constitution, which is about respect for human rights and dignity. That would be replaced by a bland statement saying that there will be equity, which means that everyone would be treated equally. It also means that there would be only one solution to any international problem around the world, which would lead to an all-or-nothing situation whereby if the WHO got it right—if I had time, I would go into everything it got wrong in the last pandemic—maybe we would be okay. But if the WHO got it wrong, the whole of humanity would get it wrong. There would be no competition. If there was only one car manufacturer and only one solution, I am not sure it would be the best car that we could ever have. Competition between nations for solutions is a good thing.
I have grave concerns about the two proposed instruments, and about who is running and controlling the WHO. It would be foolish not to see that pharmaceutical giants have huge influence over the direction of the WHO, with their lobbying power. Like many multinational corporations, their size and scale supersedes national Governments, with over 80% of the WHO budget now specified funding, and they have the ability to direct policy. I think it is fair to say that we are drifting away from the WHO’s original and noble ethos of promoting a democratic, holistic approach and co-operation on public health.
The WHO let us down over covid in its response. In January 2020, as has been pointed out, it was still telling us that there was no person-to-person transmission of the virus. That was wrong. It then prescribed lockdowns and mass vaccination during the pandemic, which drove mutations. The pandemic response of the WHO and national Governments should be a cautionary tale about the impact on citizens of handing power to the state. It should certainly not be a template for going further and faster in signing away rights and liberties.
The pandemic response brutally illustrated that the profit-optimised version of the greater good pursued by the WHO often clashes with children’s health. Before I spoke out on 13 December on the risks of the experimental mRNA vaccines, the MHRA was looking to authorise the vaccination of children down to the age of six months in this country. I am very grateful that the Government listened and that we did not do that. Indeed, it was pushed back to people over 50 and, after my speech on 17 March, I am delighted that the Government put it back to only those over 75. In a few months, that is a huge difference from trying to vaccinate everybody. If we were all under one rule, we would be doing exactly the opposite of what this country has individually decided to do.
While we are on the subject of opaque, undemocratic organisations, it is interesting to see what the EU is doing. The EU thinks that we need to strengthen all this. Not only will the WHO be allowed to have a department of misinformation, which will be the arbiter of what the truth is during an emergency, but the EU will adopt exactly the same policy and have its own such department, so that in a pandemic there will be only one version of the truth. That is not very good for science, is it?
The One Health approach is a whole-society approach. The WHO will have the ability to mobilise every aspect of our society. Once it calls those emergencies, it will be able to keep them going. It will have control over absolutely every aspect of our citizens’ lives. This is absolutely massive. There is no more important treaty. Of course, were we to give away such powers—I would never vote to do so—we should have a referendum, because sovereignty belongs to the people. It is not ours to give away; we know that from the referendum in 2016. I hope that the House listens very carefully and reads these documents.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Ind)
The hon. Gentleman is right that he is elected by his constituents to speak on their behalf. But when it comes to the matter of sovereignty, surely it lies with the people? Like me, the hon. Gentleman is only a custodian of that sovereignty for a brief period of time, after which it must be returned intact to the people who elected him so that they can elect someone else if necessary. When it comes to giving sovereignty away, that has to go back to the people and it requires a referendum. The people will decide whether they wish to give their sovereignty away.
Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
I thank the hon. Gentleman and I will now come on to his point. Is holding a referendum the right tool for now? We had one in Scotland; this was widely accepted on all sides to be a once-in-a-generation referendum. Those who lost have ever since pushed for another referendum. The same happened over Brexit; it consumed the nation. Referendums are divisive; they polarise positions and leave a lasting legacy of division. Whether a referendum is appropriate is for the Government to decide, and if they think it is, they must make all the facts known. I suggest that petitioners, while playing their part in the education process, must do so in a sensible manner. I have no time for conspiracy theories.
Has the right hon. Gentleman read the pandemic treaty proposed by the WHO, and has he read the amendments to the international health regulations that have to be looked at alongside that very important document?
John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)
The request was for a treaty to be drawn up—it has not been finalised yet—under the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). Is that what we are talking about? This is going into fantasy land. Unfortunately, as we saw during the pandemic, the ability to get coherence across countries, even to move vaccines, is difficult and there is a need to move at speed. This was a covid pandemic, but it could equally have been an avian influenza pandemic. Indeed, there are a huge number of similarities.
The right hon. Gentleman says there is a need to move at speed. Does he agree that Pfizer moved at the speed of science, to the effect that it never even tested whether the vaccine actually stopped transmission or contraction of the virus? This House mandated people to lose their jobs for not taking a vaccine that was unproven and unsafe, and that was actually never going to stop them transmitting the virus.
It certainly was not unproven or unsafe, and it had a huge beneficial impact across the world. Unfortunately, we have some people—a very limited number, but we all get letters on this issue—who wallow in the realm of conspiracy theories. Indeed, we have just had another example.
My right hon. Friend is making a great and informed speech. Are she and the Chamber aware that WHO has extended the public health emergency of international concern every six months since January 2020? As far as WHO is concerned, we are still in an emergency? Once the treaties are in place, it would decide when an emergency is over and it would return those powers to us.
Esther McVey (Tatton) (Con)
I thank my hon. Friend for saying those words on the Floor of the House, so that they can be documented in Hansard.
My hon. Friend is a stalwart for those who have been vaccine harmed and vaccine bereaved, and he is making a great contribution. Does he agree that the WHO has let us all down very badly with its unilateral decision not to investigate where the virus originated? If we could find the labs in which it was developed, and if we could find those who authorised it and funded it and bring them criminally to account, that would surely be the best way of dissuading anyone from again carrying out this sort of action, which has caused so much harm around the world.
Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which is a question that I was going to pose and seek to answer. One of the issues is that China has a lot to cover up. If it is not covering it up, why is it not allowing people to investigate exactly what happened at Wuhan? Why is it not co-operating with the World Health Organisation? The answer is that, in a sense, the World Health Organisation is now subservient to China.
Without wishing to be accused of being a conspiracy theorist, can I just spin a scenario to my hon. Friend? Imagine a nightmare situation in which the House ignored the two new instruments from the WHO, and then some time in the next 12 months before they are ratified in May 2024 there happens to be another release from a lab—another pandemic—and then both Houses of Parliament were given no time to debate the two instruments before ratification. Should we not avoid that nightmare situation by having that debate now?
Sir Christopher Chope
I agree with my hon. Friend, as I almost always do. Prevention is better than cure. Why would we want to give up control over all these issues by signing up to this treaty?
My right hon. Friend says that amendments are being brought forward on the basis of lessons learnt, but does she not agree that WHO has refused to have an investigation into how it handled itself or into its recommendations during the pandemic? How can we have knowledge where it went right or wrong if it will not have a review of its own performance?
The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Anne-Marie Trevelyan)
I think we have all looked closely at that. My hon. Friend highlights a question, but the whole point of the negotiations and discussions is that all member states bring their expertise and experiences to the party. As I said, the UK is at the heart of those negotiations and will look to ensure that, if a text is found that can be agreed by all member states, it is one that will meet some of those challenges and the lessons learnt that we have all identified as individual states and working together in many ways as an international community, as we have done. Importantly, once those amendments are identified, accepting them would require changes to our domestic law through legislation in the usual way. As has been discussed at some length, we are of course a sovereign state in control of whether we enter into international agreements.