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Taking a jab at vaccine diplomacy


By Christine Quigley

Today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson lent his name to a joint letter, signed by 23 other world leaders, calling for greater international co-operation to tackle future pandemics and other major health emergencies. Other signatories include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, demonstrating at least a degree of public UK-EU co-operation following last week’s damaging row over a potential export ban on vaccines.  

It’s a far cry from the Prime Minister’s recent remarks at the 1922 Committee, where he reportedly credited “capitalism” and “greed” for the success of the UK’s coronavirus vaccination programme. Throughout the pandemic, the Prime Minister and other government spokespeople have consistently used the phrase “world-beating”, particularly when referring to the track-and-trace system. This rhetoric has been interpreted as jingoistic by international commentators. The Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole, who called it ‘risible’ and ‘rather sad’ in the Guardian in December, drew a distinction between the aspirations to be world-beating and world-leading, saying “For everybody else, the race has been against the virus. For the Johnson regime, it seems, the race is against everybody else.” 

Taken alongside the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, the £4bn cut to the international aid budget during the pandemic and ramped-up rhetoric on tackling illegal immigration from the Home Office, it could be argued that the recent direction of the UK Government has been a diet version of former President Trump’s isolationist, America-First stance. Today’s joint letter, in contrast, comprises clear and ambitious aspirations for international cooperation on future pandemics. It draws explicit parallels with the foundation of the United Nations, referencing the aims of the international community in 1945 to “dispel the temptations of isolationism and nationalism and to address the challenges that could only be achieved together”. 

So is this a change of direction from Government or a continuation of its previous foreign policy stance? It is significant that a number of Commonwealth leaders, including from South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Trinidad and Tobago and Fiji, also signed the joint letter, as did the president of Chile, a key member of the CPTPP free trade agreement which the UK is seeking to join. Cooperation to prevent future pandemics with countries with historic ties to Britain and key trading partners is an important exercise in soft power by the British government. 

However, today’s letter doesn’t quite signify a global consensus on how to protect against future health emergencies. Other signatories are notable by their absence – neither Vladimir Putin nor Xi Jinping have signed the joint letter. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy published last week outlined the Government’s approach to both China and Russia. On the former, it pledged to “continue to pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with China, while ensuring our national security and values are protected” and specifically referenced human rights concerns and the unfolding situation with Hong Kong. On the latter, it was even less equivocal, calling Russia “the most acute threat to our security”. More broadly, only one of the ten largest countries by population is represented in the letter, with President Joko Widodo signing on behalf of Indonesia. Together, the nine countries missing, including India, Pakistan and the United States, represent a population of more than 4.2 billion people. 

Today’s letter identifies the importance of global leadership, mutual accountability and cooperation in tackling future health crises and calls for a new international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response. While coronavirus has hit almost every country, it remains to be seen how global our response to future pandemics will actually be.