Boris Johnson the superhero is needed, not the showman

With potential conflict among G7 leaders and criticism over lack of ambition, there is a risk the UK prime minister may change the focus of the Cornwall summit.

Expert comment Published 9 June 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 2 minute READ

The last time Boris Johnson held centre stage with the world’s media was when he was filmed trapped on that zip wire, waving union flags while promoting the London 2012 Olympics. That stunt and his rousing pre-games speech were generally deemed a public relations triumph, capturing the hopeful spirit of recovering from the global financial crash.

Between them, G7 leaders represent two-thirds of the global pharma market, the majority of the world genomic capability, and lead the world in life sciences and clinical trials

But the world is a very different place in 2021 – millions have died in the worst health crisis in more than a century, the global economy is in turmoil, and this year’s Olympics are still under question. So, as Boris Johnson welcomes G7 leaders to Cornwall, what the world needs now is not Flash Boris Johnson the showman, but instead Flash Boris Johnson the superhero who will help save the world.

This might seem a tall order even for an ultra-optimist such as the UK prime minister, but the reality is he and his fellow G7 heads of government do have the knowledge, power and resources at their disposal to do this. Between them, G7 leaders represent two-thirds of the global pharma market, the majority of the world genomic capability, and lead the world in life sciences and clinical trials.

Consensus has emerged

In recent weeks an amazing consensus has emerged among leading health experts, economists, Nobel laureates, faith leaders, and former heads of government about what needs to be done to end the pandemic quickly. This consists of three urgent actions.

Rich countries which have raced ahead in vaccinating their populations should donate approximately one billion doses of their vaccine stocks immediately to COVAX, the global body distributing vaccines efficiently and equitably around the world.

An additional $50 billion – the bulk to come from G7 economies – is needed to fund vaccines, tests and medicines, and strengthen health systems to ensure everyone in the world is protected.

The transfer of vital health technologies to developing countries should be accelerated to rapidly increase the world’s capacity to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines and commodities, which will involve pooling technologies and know-how, suspending patents, and large injections of public financing.

These points ought to be the first three items on the agenda at this year’s G7 summit. The heads of the World Bank, the IMF, the World Health Organisation (WHO)and World Trade Organisation (WTO) called on the G7 to focus exactly on these topics, so it cannot be said the G7 leaders are in the dark.

So Boris’s companions in St Ives now have the script, but it must be recognised it will take these superpowers more than a minute to save the world. And there are significant differences among the G7 leaders about some of the options to achieve these objectives. Whereas Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron support waiving patents for COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic, this is opposed by Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson.

Rather than focusing on ending this pandemic, the UK may wish to switch its attention to averting future pandemics

Furthermore, the performance of G7 countries in sharing vaccines or deferring orders to enable other countries to catch up has been lamentable and has led to justified criticism that wealthy countries are perpetuating ‘vaccine apartheid’. Less than one per cent of people in low income countries have been vaccinated while highly protected G7 populations fixate on their foreign summer holidays.

In addition, whereas the $50 billion investment to protect everyone has been dubbed the ‘deal of the century’ as it will potentially save the world economy $9 trillion, there has been an alarming lack of solidarity from wealthy countries to pay their fair share.

Criticism over lack of ambition

Faced with potential conflict among the group and wide criticism for a lack of ambition in tackling this agenda, there is a major danger that the UK prime minister might simply try to change the agenda.

Rather than focusing on ending this pandemic, the UK – where the high number of inoculations is giving an illusion of COVID-19 being beaten – may wish to switch its attention to averting future pandemics. This would involve discussing issues such as global health governance, strengthening preparedness systems, and the merits of a pandemic treaty.

These are undoubtedly important issues that the G7 should debate but, at present, it would feel like discussing fire prevention measures in a burning building. With all of us at risk from new variants of the virus, now is the time for heroic firefighting.

If Boris Johnson and the G7 team of 2021 are to go down in history as superheroes rather than villains, they need to follow the script – donate vaccines, fund COVID-19 commodities and health systems, and speed up technology transfers. There is not a second to waste.

This article was originally published in The Times.