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Bloomfield spearheads WHO health regs overhaul

In brief
  • Dr Ashley Bloomfield co-chairs WHO group revising international health protocols.
  • Proposed revisions are aimed at strengthening International Health Regulations post-COVID.
  • ‘One Health’ initiative aims to integrate health policy with climate action.
  • Concerns arise over national sovereignty vs. WHO’s expanded role, but what is the reality? 
  • How real is the threat digital health certificates will curtail travel and personal freedoms?

Dr Ashley Bloomfield’s strategic role at WHO

Dr Sir Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s former health director-general, has transitioned to a senior role with the World Health Organization (WHO) as co-chair of the Working Group on Amendments to the International Health Regulations (WGIHR). 

Unpacking the International Health Regulations

The International Health Regulations (IHRs) are the operational  details under the UN’s Pandemic Treaty (see below), covering 196 countries. These regulations dictated some aspects of the Government of New Zealand’s response to COVID, particularly reporting, surveillance and coordinated actions. 

Dr. Ashley Bloomfield co-chairs WHO group revising international health protocols.
A Kiwi is leading the UN’s ‘One Health approach’ integrating climate change with public health – ringing the alarm or alarmism?

IHRs alongside the Pandemic Treaty

The UN’s Pandemic prevention, preparedness and response accord (PPPR aka the “Pandemic Treaty”) is also being amended. The zero draft, which seems to be more of an advanced basis for discussion, has been published.

Both the IHR overhaul and the Pandemic Treaty are to be completed by May 2024 in time for the World Health Assembly. 

One Health under the spotlight

Both also explicitly reference One Health, which is an integration of health policy with climate action developed by the WHO.

Proponents argue for a unified response to health threats, one which factors in environmental catalysts of diseases. For example, how land use affects the spread of malaria. But the notion of ‘climate lockdowns’ has emerged as a contentious issue, with some voicing concerns over potential overreach under the guise of environmental health.

New Zealand has been advocating for the integration of health and environmental policies at the WHO, thus shaping the conversation around the ‘One Health’ approach.

Concerns over a loss of sovereignty

The balance between national sovereignty and international health regulations is a concern for many, including Winston Peters. The NZ First leader suggested that the WHO’s expanded mandate could encroach on NZ’s autonomy. 

The WGIHR counters these claims as misinformation. 

It seems even the current version of the IHRs are legally binding, but what does that mean and are the new proposed agreements any more controlling? 

Notably, it is reporting and administrative matters that seem to be mandatory, with substantive decisions left up to the countries themselves. Indeed, the WHO talks of health “recommendations”, in the face of a threat, and earlier agreements don’t purport to order countries how to respond. 

Certainly COVID well illustrated that countries took different paths. The WHO documents contain provisions recognising the sovereignty of individual countries and how would any surrendering of sovereignty even be enforced? 

Finally, in most, if not all countries, it is not even possible to strip the important political decision making from the senior political body and delegate it elsewhere, particularly out of the country.

How will the new government affect NZ’s position on the global health initiatives?

The change in New Zealand’s government has raised questions on the nation’s stance on collaborative health initiatives. Despite this political reshuffling, the Ministry of Health appears committed to promptly aligning with UN and WHO policies.

Travel, health certificates, and personal liberty

Hundreds of IHR amendments have been put forward, suggesting everything from a global digital health certificate network (GDHCN) to intricate travel surveillance systems. 

It remains to be seen what might be adopted. Any system that is set up to control during a crisis can also be mis-used for control. 

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