Dr Caroline Johnson is the Member of Parliament for Sleaford and North Hykeham.
In any other year, World Immunisation Week might have passed you by. This year, as the world grapples to find a successful coronavirus vaccine, we know more than ever how important immunisation is to our day to day life.
Covid-19 is the greatest challenge facing the world in any of our lifetimes. As both a Conservative MP and a consultant paediatrician, I have seen this country’s efforts to keep it contained both from a policy perspective and on the NHS frontline.
Since recess started, I have swapped the House of Commons for Peterborough City Hospital, donning my scrubs to support the heroic efforts of my full-time NHS colleagues.
The pandemic has of course transformed our lives, but I have been moved by Britain’s response to the crisis – from the determination of key workers to the solidarity of those at home, such as the amazing Colonel Tom Moore and the weekly Clap for Our Carers. The compassion and generosity that makes Britain great has shone through in this crisis.
But we must remember that this is a virus that does not respect country borders. This is a global pandemic that demands a global response.
The outbreak gives us a stark reminder of how fast a disease can spread when there is no vaccine to protect people. In the UK we’re fortunate that our Government has taken huge steps to ensure our NHS can cope. However in developing countries, experts have warned that the weakness of their healthcare systems is one of the biggest risks to the global spread of the virus.
If we sit back and allow coronavirus to spread in poorer countries, this could lead to the virus re-emerging in the UK later in the year and put further pressure on our NHS.
The situation around the world is indeed bleak. In the Central African Republic, there are just three ventilators for a population of five million. Worryingly, the World Health Organisation has warned that the number of cases in Africa could dramatically rise to ten million in three to six months. Save the Children calculates that delayed action on prevention and containment could cost over three million lives in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa alone.
At a time when it would be easy to just look inward, the Government is showing leadership by considering the global implications of this pandemic. Integral to this has been the Government’s commitment of £250 million for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) – the biggest donation of any country – to find a life-saving vaccine that can bring an end to the pandemic. Thanks to this investment from the British people, any future vaccines from this programme will be made available at the lowest possible price to the NHS.
Back home, the Government has also launched a Vaccine Taskforce that will bring members of our globally-renowned life sciences industry together to drive forward efforts to research and then produce a potential coronavirus vaccine as quickly as possible. Already we have seen the first human trial in Europe in Oxford, and another team at Imperial College London hopes to begin human trials of its vaccine in June – all possible thanks to £40 million of government funding.
This is all part of a range of support that the UK has committed to the fight against coronavirus. With British international aid totalling £744 million so far, this makes us one of the biggest donors to the international response – something we should be very proud of. For me personally, I can think of no better way to use our aid budget than to tackle this invisible enemy.
However, we must not lose sight of that fact that even before this crisis hit, a child was dying every 20 seconds from a disease that could be prevented by a vaccine, such as pneumonia, polio or measles, with global vaccine coverage stalling at 86 per cent. Strong UK support for immunisation on the global stage will not only be critical to ending the coronavirus pandemic, but also to meeting the Conservative manifesto commitment to help end preventable child deaths by 2030.
The Government’s renewed contribution to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is hugely welcome, and a critical first step in delivering the Government’s pledge to ending preventable maternal, new-born, and child deaths by 2030. The commitment of £330 million per year over the next five years to Gavi places the UK firmly at the forefront of the global fight back against deadly preventable diseases. UK Aid’s contribution alone will protect 75 million children against diseases like pneumonia.
It is vital that the Government builds on this momentum when it hosts the Global Vaccine Summit in London on June 4 by encouraging other Governments to mobilise the £6 billion that Gavi requires to immunise the next generation. Alongside this fundraising, the summit is a critical opportunity for the UK to shape the global vaccine agenda, ensuring that Gavi’s strategy delivers for the most marginalised children who are hardest to reach and at greatest risk.
Gavi has achieved remarkable results since its creation in 2000, saving over 13 million lives and vaccinating over 760 million children – a whole generation. In 2018, it immunised two children every second. British aid, research and development, and manufacturing have all been critical to the alliance’s success. By supporting the replenishment of Gavi, the UK will help to immunise an additional 300 million people between 2021-2025, saving up to eight million lives.
The Government has great shown global leadership in its support of the search for a coronavirus vaccine, and we all rely on the success of those endeavours. But, in the midst of this crisis, World Immunisation Week is an important reminder of the critical importance of maintaining our wider efforts to promote vaccination, so that no child dies of a disease that they could have been immunised against.