Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Southwark News column: Ebola crisis - 28/8/14

Government must reach out to diaspora groups in Ebola crisis

We have started seeing on the TV news disturbing reports of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.  So far, we have heard that nearly 1,300 people have died from the virus and that 2,200 people have been infected in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea and Liberia.  The Presidents of Liberia and Nigeria have declared a national state of emergency in their countries and Guinea has closed its borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia.  The World Health Organisation – based at the UN – has declared Ebola a global public health emergency.   

Because Ebola is infectious and there is as yet no vaccine which can protect you from it or treatment that can cure you if you get it, senior government ministers here have been meeting to discuss it.  So far Cobra – the government’s emergency committee which brings together ministers from across government departments – has met twice and been chaired by the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond MP.  Of course it’s important that they are doing this.  The UK is a major participant in the World Health Organisation.  And it’s important that they consider what the impact of the Ebola outbreak might be on the UK and how we can protect ourselves from it. 

Everyone should be concerned to see people hit by a horrible disease and anyone planning to go to any of the affected countries will look to our government to get the best advice about what is safe.  Southwark is home to many people from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia and Guinea.  These diaspora communities, who are well established here, retain strong ties with their countries of origin.  Many do business with their country back home.  Many still have family and friends there.  And many visit, for family reasons or for business. 

So it is disappointing that the Government has not engaged with our local diaspora communities in order to tell them the decisions our government is making about contingency plans and hear their hopes and concerns.  I’ve asked the Foreign Secretary to convene a meeting of the leaders of the diaspora communities.  So far he has not taken up that suggestion.  I've written to the Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening MP and asked her to ensure that our government does as much as possible to help these countries protect themselves from the spread of infection. 

The health care systems in West Africa do invaluable work but they are very thinly stretched even without the Ebola epidemic.  DFID supports numerous vital health care projects – many of which I've seen on my visits to West Africa.  But what more are DFID doing to help in West Africa at the time of risk from this disease?  As yet I have not heard back from the Secretary of State - which is disappointing.  The Government should be doing everything it can to protect us from this disease.  They should be doing everything they can to help those in the affected countries.  But they should also be talking to the diaspora communities here.  And so far they have failed to do that. 

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