What is the World Health Organization?
The WHO was founded in 1948 and is the United Nations agency “that connects nations, partners and people to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable – so everyone, everywhere can attain the highest level of health”. The WHO Constitution was signed in July 1946 by representatives of 61 States, including the UK. The WHO is involved in coordinating the international response when there are major disease outbreaks- such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and the WHO declared the outbreak of Covid-19 as a pandemic. While the WHO would advise the UK Government to take measures to control the spread of the disease, it does not have any legislative power itself.
What is the WHO Pandemic Preparedness Treaty?
The Prime Minister at the time, in March 2021, called for a new global agreement to help the world prepare for future pandemics. Boris Johnson joined with a group of world leaders, to support a new treaty “as part of a cooperative and comprehensive approach to pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.”
In the March 2021 joint statement, the group of leaders said:
"The main goal of this treaty would be to foster an all of government and all of society approach, strengthening national, regional and global capacities and resilience to future pandemics. This includes greatly enhancing international co-operation to improve, for example, alert systems, data-sharing, research and local, regional and global production and distribution of medical and public health counter-measures such as vaccines, medicines, diagnostics and personal protective equipment."
Rebecca's statement on the WHO's Pandemic Preparedness Treaty (June 2022)
Firstly, and more importantly, the Health Secretary has personally assured MPs that the Government will not support any treaty which compromises the UK's sovereignty - this is something I completely agree with. No international treaty can by itself change UK law. If adopted, international treaties only become binding on the UK when ratified by Parliament, in accordance with our constitutional process. If changes to the law are necessary then a treaty could not be ratified until domestic legislation, agreed upon by Parliament, was put in place.
Right now, there is not even a draft of this treaty, nor do we expect one to be published until August 2022 at the earliest. The process for developing this new pandemic instrument will be led by the countries which are members of the World Health Organization (WHO), including the UK, not by the WHO. Member states will negotiate the content, and the UK will decide whether to become a party to the treaty. The current target date for agreeing on the text of the new instrument will be at the World Health Assembly in May 2024.
The Government has said that the UK supports a new international instrument to strengthen pandemic prevention and preparedness. The purpose of any new treaty would only be to better protect the UK from the health, social and economic impacts of pandemics. For example, making sure that countries are open and honest about future infectious disease outbreaks, so we can better detect, prevent and prepare for potential pandemics. The UK’s priority would be improving global transparency, timely data sharing and supporting equitable access to vaccines and treatments.
Nobody can predict when the next global public health emergency will emerge, but this proposed pandemic treaty would not impact our Government’s ability to take decisions about lockdowns or other measures of this nature at the national level. The UK would not support an instrument that gave the WHO powers to make decisions about these issues. On the contrary, this new treaty is designed to help us strengthen our ability to prevent, detect and respond to future health threats without having to resort to restrictions like we have seen during this pandemic.
I hope you can see that discussions about the international treaty for pandemic preparedness are at an early stage, and the Government is committed to protecting our sovereignty at every step.