An ambassador speaks

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

The UK and Philippines have reached a substantive new phase in relations over the past few years, accelerated in the last couple of years by the COVID-19 pandemic. UK Ambassador Daniel Pruce has been in Manila during a turbulent time for the whole world and has had an important role in the way relations between the two archipelagos is being shaped.

It’s of particular interest to me, having one foot in the UK and the other in the Philippines, as it were. For decades the presence of Philippine health care workers in the NHS has grown, a disproportionate number of whom, as well as other black, Asian and other minorities, died from being infected with the coronavirus. Investigations are still looking into why that happened, but it brought the community into the spotlight in a way that hadn’t happened before in the UK.

At the same time, so-called “culture wars” in the UK have made society more divided than I have ever seen it in my lifetime, partly over immigration and what the UK’s role in the world should be post-Brexit.

The UK’s equivalent to the Department of Foreign Affairs here has been completely overhauled as a result of the political forces in play: previously it was the “Foreign and Commonwealth Office,” now it’s the “Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office” through the controversial merger with the ex-Department for International Development. The stated aim was to “unite (UK) aid with (UK) diplomacy and bring them together in our international effort.”

Ambassador Pruce posted on Twitter in early June: “A valuable discussion of #Covid response, #Covax, vaccine deployment and future UK-Philippines collaboration on health care with Health Secretary Duque. Such an important partnership for the UK.“

It was the starting point of a wide-ranging video interview with him the morning after he received the Order of Sikatuna from President Rodrigo Duterte in recognition of his achievements as “Our Man in Manila” and just a few days before he got on a flight back to London.

Pruce: “Our starting point as a government is firstly supporting research and development of vaccines, which we did very intensively with the Oxford team, which obviously then became the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine that we’re now seeing rolled out globally. Alongside, there is this very keenly felt global commitment to ensuring equitable access to vaccines globally.

“One element of that is reflected in the way Oxford AstraZeneca are producing their vaccine on a not-for-profit basis during the pandemic. Another manifestation of that has been British government support for the Covax Facility and the supply of donations to countries who are beneficiaries of Covax and also a broader principle of support where we’ve absolutely put into the center of our work here, putting all of our efforts into ensuring that vaccines are available, offered on an equitable basis and that the deployment is safe and efficient as well.

“If you put together Covax plus tripartite plus the donation there’s already over 7,000,000 shots of AstraZeneca in the country.

“Supporting effective COVID response and recovery, I think, is absolutely mainstreamed into our work here. Over the past nearly 18 months, I think you could say we as an embassy engineered everything we do so that it’s appropriate to the the COVID context that we’re all living within. It manifests itself by absolutely being part of the DNA of this organization.

“Following through the process, you’ve got the high level commitment to equitable access and you’ve got the very practical work that we’ve been doing here around procurements and supporting those procurement discussions. So getting the vaccines into the country but then of course, that’s not the end of it, because once you’ve got the shots in the country, they’ve got to get into people’s arms.

“So earlier this year, drawing from the UK experience of our vaccine deployment which, as you know, began in December of last year with a Filipino nurse administering the vaccine in Coventry, we worked with the Department of Health and other partners here in the Philippines to offer a number of sort of roundtables and workshops. All of this, virtually with health care professionals, frontline workers who would actually be dealing with the practicalities of administering vaccinations.

“We also involved the University of the Philippines, and over the course of a month or two, this series of virtual workshops and exchanges had over 10,000 people take part. That for me felt like a very concrete contribution to helping with vaccine deployment, so you know how you set up your clinic, how you notify people, you know what you do if you’ve got a few shots left over at the end of the day, all of these very practical questions.

“It also speaks about equitable access, because you know you’ve got to set up your administration procedures in a way that enable you to know that the people that come are within the relevant priority group that you’re dealing with to actually get to the site, get the shot, get home safely. It’s not enough just to make the vaccine available. You’ve actually got to follow through.

“The work on vaccines is one element of the broader health care relationship, another is how we are working with the government on economic recovery for example, and thinking of how some of the priorities that we’ve got in that context can help in relation to post-COVID economic recovery.

“A potential driver of economic recovery will be foreign investment in the Philippines, as you would expect, as a foreign embassy, that’s something which we’ve always been particularly supportive of. In recent months, as part of the government’s wider efforts to boost the economy, we and the British Chamber of Commerce have been very active in promoting the passage of a number of pieces of legislation that will help with liberalization of the economy.

“Three in particular: the Foreign Investors Act, the Public Services Act and the Retail Trade Liberalization Act. The President mentioned those in the SONA, they’re making good progress through the legislature and hopefully, subject to the impact of ECQ, will be prioritized in the sessions moving ahead.

“I think for me that’s an illustration of how what in other circumstances would have been our traditional promotion of free and open trade and investment, takes on a context which is directly relevant to COVID and the plans to deliver economic recovery.

“In my own conversations about (health care workers emigrating rather than staying in the Philippines), my starting point is always that we enormously appreciate the contribution that Filipino health care workers make to the UK. We want to find ways that that can continue to the benefit of both countries. At the same time, as an observer, as a guest, I can absolutely see the important challenge for any government in terms of ensuring the proper staffing and resourcing of the Filipino health care system.

“Framing the discussions I’ve had in those terms. there’s never been any sort of difficulty or challenge in moving forward on a mutually supportive basis.

“Alongside the debate about what sort of numbers and exemptions and caps and people flows, there’s also a really important set of issues around well-being, welfare, training and development. We’re having some really valuable discussions with the government around a Memorandum of Understanding which will, you know, seek to capture those issues as well as recruitment processes that are fair and ethical: for example that people are not being made vulnerable to exploitation. There’s more that can be done to ensure that that welfare is properly protected and expertise and training can be supported.”



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