COVID-19 has demonstrated that no-one is safe until we are all safe, and that effective global cooperation is needed to better protect the UK and other countries around the world from the detrimental health, social and economic impacts of pandemics and other health threats. The UK supports a new international legally-binding instrument as part of a cooperative and comprehensive approach to pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.
At a World Health Assembly Special Session in late 2021, the 194 countries of the World Health Organization (WHO) agreed to launch a process to draft and negotiate a new instrument, through the auspices of WHO, to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. The negotiating process will be led by member states, including the UK.
The instrument aims to improve how the world prevents, better prepares for, and responds to future disease outbreaks of pandemic potential at national, regional and global level. It would complement the existing international instruments which the UK has already agreed, such as the International Health Regulations. It would promote greater collective action and accountability.
A treaty is an international agreement concluded between States or with international organisations in written form and governed by international law. The UK is party to a large number of multilateral treaties, including many through the United Nations (UN) and its specialised agencies such as the WHO. These instruments reflect obligations states have agreed to enter into to further common goals.
The current target date for agreeing the text of the new instrument is at the World Health Assembly in May 2024. Over the next two years the UK aims to work towards building a consensus on how the global community can better prevent, prepare for, and respond to future pandemics and will actively shape, develop and negotiate the text. The new instrument would only be adopted by the World Health Assembly if the text achieves a two-thirds vote of the Health Assembly (Article 19 of the WHO Constitution). The Health Assembly is made up of representatives of WHO Member States.
Once adopted, the instrument would only become binding on the UK if and when the UK accepts (ratifies) it in accordance with its constitutional process. In the UK this requires the treaty to be laid before Parliament for a period of 21 sitting days before the Government can ratify it on behalf of the UK.
The Government always carefully considers whether domestic legislation will be required to implement the UK’s international obligations when negotiating a treaty. Not every treaty requires implementing legislation and it is too early to say if that would apply here. However, in all circumstances, the UK’s ability to exercise its sovereignty would remain unchanged and the UK would remain in control of any future domestic decisions about national restrictions or other measures.
If changes to UK law were considered necessary or appropriate to reflect obligations under the treaty, proposals for domestic legislation would go through the usual Parliamentary process and the UK would not ratify the treaty until domestic measures, agreed by Parliament, were in place.
This process of ratification allows scrutiny by elected representatives of both the treaty and any appropriate domestic legislation in accordance with the UK’s constitutional arrangements. The Government does not consider a referendum is necessary, appropriate or in keeping with precedent for such an agreement.
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
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