UK politicians call for a 'G20 for Public Health'

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Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, speaks about the issue from his home during the coronavirus lockdown. Photo by: Brtwam via Twitter

LONDON — U.K. politicians on Monday called for the creation of a “G20 for Public Health” to help coordinate the response to global crises — but the plan was criticized by experts, who described it as a “dangerous and slippery slope” toward the further exclusion of less wealthy countries and who questioned whether a new structure was really needed.

“Do we actually need to create a new institution or just strengthen the one we’ve got already?”

— Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy, London School of Economics

The proposal came amid growing concern over how effectively existing multilateral institutions, such as the World Health Organization, have handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The influential Foreign Affairs Committee, the U.K. Parliament’s foreign policy watchdog, published the suggestion in a report exploring the role of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in tackling COVID-19.

Discussing the need to build “new structures to respond more effectively to the next pandemic,” it said a “G20 for Public Health” could “ensure that co-operation between expert researchers across the globe can flourish, even in the absence of united political leadership. Such a framework should be science-led, with participation contingent on honest co-operation in the open and transparent sharing of public health data.” It did not provide further detail on what such a body would look like.

The committee blamed China for hampering the response to COVID-19. "The only way we can overcome a global crisis on the scale of coronavirus is by working together as a global community,” said Tom Tugendhat, chair of the committee. “Our best weapons against this virus are science, evidence and co-operation. This may seem obvious to most, yet instead of sharing the information needed to help tackle the pandemic, some of the most powerful countries in the world have actively tried to supress and manipulate it.”

The idea of a new body was welcomed by Jimmy Whitworth, professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who said that the transparent sharing of health data collected by governments and WHO is often slow and limited, and “any call to do something to change that situation is to be welcomed.” He added that the countries involved would need to “walk the walk” and work ethically to encourage other nations to do the same.

But other experts pointed out that the health ministers of G-20 countries already hold meetings and said that more clarification was needed on what a new group would do differently.

Kalipso Chalkidou, director of global health policy at the Center for Global Development think tank, also criticized the premise of the proposed organization.

“Lots of poor countries are not part of the G-20. How exactly are they going to work together to address this?” she asked. “This crisis is teaching us this is a global problem, we live in a global world. … The governance arrangement needs to reflect [this].”

Stressing that the process of deciding the group’s membership was itself political, Chalkidou added: “We do need to think about [existing multilateral] governance arrangements, but the lesson should not be that we become more polarized, exclude poorer countries, exclude China. … We need to concentrate on what we are trying to solve here. … It cannot be exclusive. If we start on this basis of exclusivity, it's a dangerous and slippery slope.”

Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, said that the concept of creating such a body without political leadership is “naive” and that separating political approaches from technical ones at a multilateral health organization — as has previously been suggested for WHO — would be impossible.

“Thinking you can create something that's science-led without political interference is not going to happen,” she said.

Wenham said the global health community had a “habit” of creating new institutions, particularly in reaction to crises.

“We holistically need to step back and look at the governance arrangements and see if we have this in existence, or something similar, which we do with the WHO. … Do we actually need to create a new institution or just strengthen the one we’ve got already?” she asked.

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About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process.