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Covid: The inside story of the government’s battle against the virus



By Laura Kuenssberg, Political Editor (BBC)

At the beginning of March 2020, I asked a senior member of the government: “Do you feel worried?” They replied: “Personally? No.” But just weeks later, Downing Street was scrambling to manage the biggest crisis since World War Two.

Since then, monumental decisions have had to be taken. And there have been many accusations of failings – the desperate shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), Covid ripping through unprepared care homes, hundreds of billions borrowed and spent to keep the economy going, to name a few.

I have asked 20 of the most senior politicians, officials and former officials, who either witnessed or were involved in the big decisions, to pick five pivotal moments from the past 12 months.

What they say tells us so much about what really happened, what our leaders were thinking, and, strikingly, how little they knew. The contributors are not being named, so they could speak freely.

On 31 January, it was reported that coronavirus had arrived in the UK, as two people were admitted to hospital. Meanwhile, more than 80 Britons evacuated from China were quarantined at a facility in the north-west of England. But for the government, Brexit had sucked up all the political energy – it was the day the country officially left the EU.

The prime minister and his team were exhausted but elated. It felt like Boris Johnson had “just really started to take flight”, one member of the team tells me.

Ministers and officials had already been meeting to discuss the virus in China – but it felt thousands of miles away. There was a “lack of concern and energy,” one source tells me. “The general view was it is just hysteria. It was just like a flu.”

The prime minister was even heard to say: “The best thing would be to ignore it.” And he repeatedly warned, several sources tell me, that an overreaction could do more harm than good.

A small group in Downing Street had started daily meetings, after, according to one of those who attended, “it became clear that there was no proper, ‘Emergency break-the-glass’ plan.”

But for many of those I’ve spoken to, the game-changer was at the end of February, when the virus took hold in northern Italy – it was closer to home, and England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, had, one minister told me, warned that if it got out of China, it would become global, and be on its way to the UK.

“The biggest moment for me was when I saw those pictures of northern Italy,” one senior minister says. “I thought that will be us if we don’t move.”

Reports of the chaos there catapulted the virus, one senior minister says, “from not on the radar, to people on the floor of hospitals in Lombardy.” They say that was the moment “we knew that it was inevitable”.

Ministers and officials became locked in arguments over how to respond. The prime minister and many cabinet ministers were reluctant to consider anything as draconian as a lockdown. To many people, the very idea would have seemed fanciful.

Even stopping shaking hands seemed a step too far for the prime minister.

Before the first major coronavirus briefing on 3 March, he had, I am told, been prepared by aides to say, if asked by journalists, people should stop shaking hands with each other – as per government scientific advice.

But he said the exact opposite. “I’ve shaken hands with everybody,” he said, about visiting a hospital with Covid patients.

And it was not just a slip, one of those present at the briefing says. It demonstrated “the whole conflict for him – and his lack of understanding of the severity of what was coming”.

A Downing Street spokesperson told the BBC: “The prime minister was very clear at the time he was taking a number of precautionary steps, including frequently washing his hands. Once the social distancing advice changed, the prime minister’s approach changed.”

By this point, Mr Johnson was attending emergency committee Cobra meetings with officials and leaders from Holyrood, Belfast and Cardiff – although he had missed the first few.

But one senior politician who attended at the same time says: “The early meetings with the prime minister were dreadful.” And inside Downing Street, senior staff’s concerns about the government’s ability to cope grew.

There were huge logistical considerations about equipment, facilities and how fast the disease might move in the UK, and questions about how effective the actions taken in China to suppress the virus would be here. It was not well understood, for example, that people without symptoms could still pass it on, nor that Britons returning from half-term holidays in northern Europe were bringing the virus back home in large numbers.

“There was a genuine argument in government, which everyone has subsequently denied,” one senior figure tells me, about whether there should be a hard lockdown or a plan to protect only the most vulnerable, and even encourage what was described to me at that time as “some degree of herd immunity”.

There was even talk of “chicken pox parties”, where healthy people might be encouraged to gather to spread the disease. And while that was not considered a policy proposal, real consideration was given to whether suppressing Covid entirely could be counter productive.

On 3 March, when the prime minister set out the government’s plan, the focus was on detecting early cases and preventing the spread.

But on 12 March, with journalists crammed into the state dining room at No 10, he told the public that the country was facing its worst health crisis in a generation. Anyone with symptoms was told to stay at home for a week.

Advisers seemed confident it was not yet time to close schools or stop large crowds gathering. And the government’s scientists felt they had time to slow everything down – the peak was not expected for another 10-14 weeks.

That same week, though, nervousness was rising among others in government that the virus was outpacing everyone’s expectations, and the plans in place to smooth out the outbreak would not work.

One source tells me it felt like the “government machine was breaking in our hands”, things were “imploding”, and within 48 hours the approach outlined on the 12th would feel out of date.

There has been no shortage of controversy over whether the government was too slow to close the doors on 23 March – but many of the conversations I have had, pinpoint the moment it became urgent in No 10.

On 13 March, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) committee concluded the virus was spreading faster than thought.

But it was Downing Street “modellers in the building”, according to one current official, who pored again over the numbers, and realised the timetable that had only just been announced was likely to result in disaster.

The next morning, a small group of key staff got together. Simple graphs were drawn on a whiteboard and the prime minister was confronted with the stark prediction that the plan he had just announced would result in the NHS collapsing under the sheer number of cases.

Several of those present tell me that was the moment Mr Johnson realised the urgency – that the official assumptions about the speed of the spread of this new disease had been wrong.

To prevent the NHS “falling over”, he was warned, the government would have to impose measures as infections rose. And while they could be relaxed as cases fell, this pattern might recur across “multiple waves for 18 months”.

Several sources recall vividly the “snake like graph” they were shown that day.

Then, one official says, everything started to move at “lightning speed”. And behind closed doors – before the terrifying projections of Imperial College became public, a couple of days later – plans were accelerated.

On 16 March, the public were told to stop all unnecessary social contact and to work at home if possible.

New cabinet committees were formed. And the machine moved into a different phase, with the prime minister and the “quad” – Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Rishi Sunak – the new decision-making form. It was, I am told, “high tension – [with] a lot of testosterone in the room”.

For many inside government, the pace of change that week was staggering – but others remain frustrated the government machine, in their view, had failed to move quickly enough.

There was tension between those who wanted to ensure systems were as ready as they could be first, and others who argued vociferously that moving fast against the virus was more important than anything else.

But those I spoke to now agree on one thing – how much they did not know about the disease.

“You can kick yourself about the things that you wish you knew,” one minister says, “but we just didn’t have anything in place.”

Another cabinet minister says: “It’s easy to say we should have locked down longer, gone harder, but there are more complex debates about where the national interests really lie.”

And it was all so strange.

One minister who made some of the public announcements when lockdown came says: “I remember when I wrote it into the script, I just couldn’t believe that I was saying this.”

And one official, struck by how huge it all felt, says he googled: “Did they shut the schools during the War?”

Another, meanwhile, admits, “We were more blind than we told the public,” and suggests that is still the case one year on.

On 18 March, we reported that a small number of members of staff in No 10 had fallen ill. One insider says: “People were dropping like flies.”

The prime minister, however, was acting as though he was impervious to the risk. He had developed a habit of banging his own chest, telling staff he was “strong as a bull”. Soon, though, this chest-banging turned into “extreme coughing fits”. Tests, in short supply everywhere, were requested for him from 25 March. And two days later, he tested positive.

He switched to the chancellor’s bigger suite of offices so that he could keep working, screened off from the rest of the building. Insiders recall how much he hated this and, in a second spell of isolation in the autumn, chairs had to be placed across the door “like a puppy gate”, so he could still communicate with the tiny number of staff allowed into the same part of the building.

Then, at the end of March, the prime minister became increasingly ill – each video call he made to reassure the public required more takes.

On 6 April, he agreed to go to St Thomas’ Hospital and, struggling for breath on a phone call, I have been told, confirmed he wanted Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to stand in for him.

Initially, Downing Street tried to give the impression that all was well. Journalists were even told that Mr Johnson was working on his red boxes. That message has been put down to a mix up, and we now know this was far from the truth.

The moment of genuine crisis came when he was moved into intensive care. No-one knew if the prime minister would make it through the night – or what the plan was if he did not.

By this point, with so many in No 10 and in government already sick, there were, I have been told, about “half a dozen people running things”.

Fears that he might need to be intubated were shared by a tiny group inside Number 10. They discussed the possibility that ministers would have to gather in the cabinet room, with the doors closed, until they chose a successor – but there was no fixed protocol, and no conclusion was reached. The Tory Party, I have been told, even started to consider how to transfer the leadership without a contest, fearing that such a competition could be seen as “venal” after the prime minister’s death.

Then cabinet ministers were summoned urgently for a conference call. “All of a sudden we were asked to join this call – not knowing if he was alive,” one tells me. Then No 10 prepared to make the news public.

The Downing Street voice on the other end of the phone cracked with fear as I was asked to get to the Foreign Office as soon possible with a camera to talk to Mr Raab, who was being sent out to try to reassure the country. We reported the news that Mr Johnson was in intensive care from the back of a taxi.

A former official tells me: “We thought we really could lose him – we had to plan for a full transition.” That night was “long and shocking”, one source says.

By the end of May, the number of coronavirus cases was falling, the prime minister was back at work full time, and the public had surprised the government by overwhelmingly sticking to the rules.

Furthermore, despite some embarrassing and prominent lockdown breaches – in April, for example, Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, had to quit over her visits to her holiday home – there had been what one senior minister describes as “tremendous goodwill”.

But then came the Mirror and the Guardian’s scoop – in March, the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, had travelled hundreds of miles to County Durham, after his wife fell ill with Covid. He, too, succumbed to the virus and his stay on his family’s farm to recover, before returning to London, had been kept secret – apart from among a tiny number of Downing Street staff.

And Mr Cummings was determined not to quit. After considering sacking him, the prime minister stuck by him – but first, there was what has been described to me as tense “mediation between a couple deciding whether to divorce”.

Before making that decision, he had summoned Mr Cummings to go through his version of events. Together, they planned for him to give this version publicly – despite others’ protestations. The result was the surreal press conference in the Downing Street rose garden.

Many of those I have talked to describe this episode as a terrible turning-point.

“Even for us, this is mad,” a member of the Downing Street team tells me.

Senior ministers say: “The handling was a fiasco”. “It was ridiculous”, and, at a time of national emergency, “broke the political consensus”.

Perhaps, after two months of lockdown, the public was ready to be angry with someone.

MPs’ inboxes were swamped with irate emails – mine too. “The early pandemic washed away all the bitterness of Brexit,” one senior minister tells me. “That all came flooding back, all that bile, all that pent up frustration.”

Some ministers tweeted their support for Mr Cummings. One of those who refused says: “He should have resigned straight away. You lead by example. I was busy chopping logs with my chainsaw to get the frustration out.”

Some polling suggests the Barnard Castle episode really did dent the public’s trust in the government. “It gave people who wanted to break the rules an excuse,” one source says.

But inside government, there was a belief that an extraordinary period of unity had already started to fade, and the public had started to tire of the rules once the government had moved towards its plans to lift them.

There is no question, though, the whole misadventure made the politics of the pandemic more scratchy and less consensual.

Mr Cummings was not the only one to be caught up. In June, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, provoked anger by attending a huge Republican funeral.

But it was after Barnard Castle that it felt like the mood in the country had changed.

“People wanted to portray the PM as a clown,” one minister tells me, “or not up to the level of events.”

Britain in the summer did not feel like a country still gripped by a pandemic.

“There was loads of over optimistic messaging,” one politician says.

For example, the time when a Labour MP asked for advice at the end of June for his constituency, which was home to a popular beach and he was worried about huge numbers heading for the sea. “Show some guts,” the prime minister told him.

In July, a grinning chancellor delivered plates of Japanese curry to unsuspecting customers at a London restaurant, to promote his “eat out to help out” scheme. Then the prime minister started to encourage people back to the office.

But behind closed doors, there were significant doubts about the wisdom of this new mood. “We knew there was going to be a second wave,” one cabinet minister tells me, “and there was a row about whether people should work from home or not – it was totally ridiculous.”

The summer optimism and opening was “the biggest mistake – a rush of blood to the head”, another senior figure says. “The PM has to carry the can”.

The prime minister believed that another lockdown would be a disaster and wanted to avoid it at all costs – but for many of those involved in making the decisions, his hostility to tightening the rules again was frustrating, dangerous and political.

“The policy objective in the summer and the autumn was – do the minimum possible,” one tells me.

But by the end of August, with Britons packing beaches, the warnings of what might come were already flickering in Number 10.

Some days, sources suggest, the prime minister would express concern about the virus coming back. Others, he would be in “let-it-rip mode”. And senior officials expressed deep concern about what seemed to be changes of heart on a daily basis.

The disease would not be contained by indecision, and by the start of September, with schools and universities having returned, “you could clearly see a steady increase,” a senior figure says.

The testing system had not been able to keep pace with demand, and too few people were willing to, or could afford, to self-isolate if they tested positive. “The idea that you could liberalise in the summer was based on the idea that you could whackamole with test and trace,” the source says. “But if you didn’t whack the right moles then it doesn’t work.”

By the middle of September, “the data was already screaming out”, one insider says. On the 17th, I was told by one source: “If you do nothing now, by the end of October you will get something worse than the first wave.”

The possibility of a short “circuit breaker” lockdown was already being discussed in Downing Street that week. Prof Whitty, the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, and Mr Cummings and others were arguing hard for action to be taken – but the prime minister was unpersuaded.

Others wanted to push again – one current official recalls a “concerted effort” – and on Sunday 20th, the No 10 team gathered a range of scientists. But the prime minister remained reluctant.

Another current official describes his attitude as, “if there is a way not to act, why do it?”.

Over the next 36 hours, I have been told, a small group inside Downing Street repeatedly tried to change Mr Johnson’s mind – but by then, he was operating in a very different atmosphere.

“A swampiness had risen because of ideological pressure on this government at every turn to do less – and to do it more slowly,” a senior figure says. And it is understood Mr Johnson had privately assured groups of MPs there would be no more restrictions.

The Treasury was pointing out the damage any further restrictions would do to the economy, many of the traditional Tory-backing newspapers were hungry for restrictions to be relaxed, the party was restless, and I remember cabinet ministers who had hardly any cases of the virus in their constituencies at that point, suggesting they saw no evidence for further action.

So when Mr Johnson made changes to the coronavirus restrictions on 22 September, they were tweaks, rather than a real tightening up. I remember talking to Tory backbenchers that day who felt they had won.

The importance of the missed September moment is cited by many senior figures – and some now concede it was a mistake.

“We strained at the leash to get things going,” one cabinet minister admits. “I was aggressively for that – but I have learned that it is better to go slow.”

Another senior minister, one of those who pushed for more radical action at the time, now says: “We should have locked down more severely, earlier in the autumn – the whole point was, the earlier you act the more you buy yourself time for a strategy that can get out.”

You can still hear the frustration in the voices of those who lost the argument.

“The PM was saying the Tory Party won’t swallow it,” one tells me. “Everyone else felt, we know we are going to have to do a lockdown.”

And there is no question that the tier system that was introduced over the autumn, which portioned England into different levels of restrictions, was soon tied up in confusion and regional spats.

“It was completely unintelligible to any normal human being,” one senior official says. “It was too slow, and too Byzantine, and that resulted in more cases.”

Another says now: “We ended up tying ourselves into ever tighter knots,” as the system became more and more particular to each part of the country.

It is impossible to know what would have happened if the brakes had been slammed on in September – but some ministers pin the terrible scale of the second wave, at least in part, on the apparent reluctance to act.

The circuit-breaker that was imposed later in Wales did not make the problem go away, however. Case numbers weren’t the only concern – the economy had been shuttered, and shattered. Political demands had changed.

In defence of Mr Johnson, one senior minister says: “He’s not to blame if he was trying to reflect the aspiration for the country back in the summer”. Another tells me the plans, and the billions spent on “test-and-trace and tiering meant it was reasonable to do the unlock”.

They reject the idea that a circuit breaker was the obvious option – “There wasn’t a slam dunk recommendation.”

Regarding the potential introduction of national restrictions in September, Downing Street referred us back to comments made by the prime minister to parliament in early November.

“No-one wants to impose measures unless absolutely essential,” Mr Johnson told the Commons. “So it made sense to focus initially on the areas where the disease was surging and not to shut businesses, pubs and restaurants in parts of the country where incidence was low.”

But while there is no question mistakes were made in the first phase of the pandemic, when so much about the virus was a mystery, those involved in the decisions are already less forgiving of their own mistakes the second time around.

“A miracle,” is how one minister describes the vaccine gamble to me. A government so often lambasted by critics for busting convention did it again – but this time, so far, with a stunning outcome.

Vaccines had been discussed in January, as the government machine began to contemplate, slowly, what might be ahead. Early on the chancellor, holding the cheque book, indicated a willingness to spend at speed, without asking for guarantees.

No 10 decided to “chuck everything at it”, at a meeting in April. With Sir Patrick’s crucial experience and deputy chief medical officer for England Prof Jonathan Van-Tam’s emphasis on the practicalities of delivering the vaccine, politicians were persuaded to take what was then a huge risk.

There was an early decision to “pay high, pay early, and ensure it works,” one senior official tells me.

And it seems their decision was informed by everything that had gone wrong with trying to secure PPE – the collapse of the NHS’s normal procurement process, which is controlled by the Department of Health.

The UK decided early not to participate in the EU’s joint plan to buy vaccines. While publicly this decision may have been politically controversial, behind closed doors it was “easy” and “straightforward”, ministers and officials say. “No-one wanted any of the Brexit baggage anywhere near it.” And, more importantly, the EU had made it clear any participating country would be unable to make its own deals with manufacturers the EU had an agreement with – or control its own supply.

The vaccines team had warned ministers at the start of May that nothing was certain – and developing a vaccine as quickly as the prime minister, who “wanted it yesterday”, required would be an uphill struggle. But, as one minister says, it was “the one thing we would wish that we had done in a year’s time”.

Another, a senior minister, says: “The PM strategically saw immediately that the combination of testing, drugs and vaccine was the way out.” And when it came to vaccines, the UK was ready to take an expensive gamble.

The Treasury was spending speculatively in ways it had not since the War – and vaccine spending has already reached nearly £13.5bn. “Imagine if it hadn’t come off and we had spent all of that taxpayers’ money,” one senior official says to me.

There was intense secrecy, throughout, with the various vaccines given secret code names to ensure commercial confidentiality. All were named after submarines – the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine “Ambush”, I can now reveal, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca “Triumph”.

After 12 months of grappling with endless calculations about balancing risks to life, wider health and how the country makes a living, decision-makers are exhausted. They have to accept it is perfectly possible to be wrong, one senior minister tells me. And those who made the decisions are all too aware mistakes they made in these past 12 months may have had such a terrible cost.

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Singarasa Case should guide GoSL’s Geneva policy



BY Dharshan Weerasekera

In 2005, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruled in the seminal case Singarasa v. Attorney General (SC/SPLA/182/99) that the U.N. Human Rights Commission (the predecessor of today’s U.N. Human Rights Council) did not have jurisdiction, within Sri Lanka, to make recommendations on behalf of the petitioner. In doing so, the court decided that Sri Lanka’s accession to the optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1997 had been done in a manner contrary to the Constitution, and hence illegal.

This case has invaluable lessons to teach in regard to the present government’s ‘Geneva Policy.’ By ‘Geneva Policy,’ I mean the government’s stance to the UNHRC’s follow-up resolutions to Sri Lanka’s unilateral withdrawal, in March 2020, from the co-sponsorship of Resolution 30/1 of October 2015. In response, the Council adopted Resolution Resolution than 30/1. Among other things, it establishes an evidence-gathering mechanism to collect evidence of war crimes and other crimes against Sri Lankans.

Meanwhile, in September 2022, the High Commissioner released a report on Sri Lanka’s progress in implementing the recommendations of Resolution 46/1. The government has officially rejected both, Resolution 46/1 and the High Commissioner’s report, on grounds that they were done without Sri Lanka’s consent and, therefore, contrary to the founding principles of the Council. (See A/HRC/51/G/1, paras 1.1, 1.2). However, the Foreign Ministry, in its response, lists various things that the government is doing to comply with Resolution 46/1.

I argue that the government, continuing to comply with the Resolution while, at the same time, rejecting it in principle, without first obtaining a definitive interpretation of the relevant legal position, from an international forum, or even the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, creates a dangerous precedent. Given the fact that state practice is one of the sources of customary international law, the government’s conduct has the potential to do irreparable harm to the long-term interests of the country.

Unfortunately, there is little, or no, discussion of these issues in local newspapers, and academic journals, and it is in the public interest to start one. In this article, I shall discuss: i) the facts and reasoning of the Singarasa judgment, ii) the High Commissioner’s report and the government’s reply, iii) assess of the government’s position, and draw the relevant conclusions.

The Singarasa case

In 1991, the High Court of Colombo convicted Singarasa of five charges, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The charges dealt with alleged attempts by Singarasa, and others, to attack the Army camps,in Jaffna and its suburbs. Singarasa appealed against the conviction to the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court. He also complained to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. The HRC could entertain petitions under the Optional Protocol to ICCPR. Sri Lanka had ratified the ICCPR, in 1980, and acceded to the protocol, in 1997. The HRC said that, Sri Lanka was under obligation to release Singarasa.

The main issue, in this case, is whether Sri Lanka’s accession to the ICCPR, and the related protocol, gives a right to an international body to intervene in the domestic sphere to determine Singarasa’s fate. The court answers ‘no,’ because of the following reasons. The court starts with the premise that the authority for the President to enter into international agreements comes from Article 33(f) of the Constitution. Article 33(f) states: “To do all such acts as, not being inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution…he is required or authorized to do.” It follows that the President cannot agree to anything inconsistent with the Constitution.

The court then assesses the signing of the ICCPR, in 1980, and the subsequent accession to the optional protocol, in 1997, separately. The court points out that the ICCPR requires that the respective signatories adopt domestic legislation to implement the provisions of the covenant. This does not conflict with our Constitution and hence is lawful.

However, when acceding to the optional protocol, the government had issued a declaration that envisioned that the rights of Sri Lankan citizens could be adjudicated in tribunals, and forums, outside this country. The court points out that the institutions, through which Sri Lankans can vindicate their rights, within this country, are exhaustively set out in Article 105 of the Constitution, and the HRC is not one of them. Therefore, the court deems the accession to the optional protocol illegal. The court states:

“Where the President enters into a treaty or accedes to a covenant the content of which is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law it would be a transgression of the limitation in Article 33 (f) and ultra vires—such acts of the President would not bind the Republic qua State.” (p. 11)

The High Commissioner’s report and the Government’s reply

The most disturbing aspect of the High Commissioner’s report is its description of the progress made by the impugned evidence-gathering mechanism. It states: “OHCHR continues to develop the information and evidence repository using an e-discovery platform….OHCHR commenced identifying material held by other actors and engaging with information providers. To date, the databases of two organisations have been migrated into the repository, and negotiations with other information providers are ongoing.” ((A/HRC/51/5, 4th October 2022, para 54.)

The report also details what the OHCHR plans to do with this information. It says: “To develop possible strategies for future accountability processes, the project team started mapping potential accountability process at international level, including through consultations with relevant stakeholders, in particular national authorities, victims and civil society organisations.” (para 56.)

In sum, it is clear that a vast operation is underway, not just to collect evidence against Sri Lanka but to set the groundwork to help prosecute Sri Lankans before various national and international forums. To the best of my knowledge, the founding statutes of the UNHRC, as well as the OHCHR, do not give enforcement capabilities to these institutions to prosecute or assist in the prosecution of people for violations of human rights and other offences.

Their respective mandates to protect and promote human rights are to be carried out with the consent of all nations concerned and in a spirit of “cooperation and constructive international dialogue.” Therefore, through the impugned mechanism the OHCHR has now arguably expanded its mandate to include an enforcement component, seemingly without any debate or discussion of the matter before the Council.

To turn to the government’s response, in the introductory paragraphs of the said document, the government rejects both resolution 46/1 as well as the High Commissioner’s report on grounds that they violate the UN’s founding principles. However, for much of the remainder of the report (which runs to 16 pages) the government enumerates the various things it has been doing to implement various provisions of the resolutions. For instance, the government discusses the work being done under the Office on Missing Persons, Office for Reparations, and so on.

On the OMP, the report states inter alia: “The OMP conducted panels of inquiries as part of the verification process. More than 89% of persons (1207 of 1370 applicants invited for inquiries) met with members of the panel and their testimonials were recorded.” (A/HRC/51/G/1, 9th September 2022, para 46)

Meanwhile, on the Office for Reparations, the report says, “The office processed 5964 claims for payment, by the end of 2021, and paid a sum of Rs. 399.8 million in settlement, out of the allocated sum of Rs. 800 million….Upto the end of 2022, the OR received Rs. 226 million to pay compensation and 2097 claims were settled utilizing Rs. 153 million.” (para 56)

In sum, even though the government has nominally rejected resolution 46/1 and by extension resolution 30/1 as well, the government is expending great energy, including enormous sums of money, to comply with various provisions of those resolutions.

Assessment of the policy

The Singarasa case establishes that the President, when conducting foreign policy, is exercising the power conferred under Article 33 (f) of the Constitution. One cannot suppose that it is consistent with the Constitution to comply with the provisions of a resolution that the Government itself considers to be in violation of the founding principles of the UNHRC.

Admittedly, a resolution of the UNHRC does not rise to the level of a treaty or covenant. However, there should now be a serious debate in this country about whether the reasoning above should apply to such resolutions which continue to target Sri Lanka on the world stage.

Furthermore, if, as I have suggested, the OHCHR has expanded its mandate by exploiting the provisions of Resolution 46/1 to acquire capabilities that were never envisioned in the relevant founding statutes, permitting such conduct to continue has the potential to set precedents in customary international law, with grave consequences for Sri Lanka, as well as other nations.

Therefore, Sri Lankan citizens are entitled to know the legal basis for the government’s continued compliance with provisions of Resolution 46/1, while nominally rejecting the Resolution. The only institution that can provide a legal opinion binding on the government is the Supreme Court. The President has the capacity, under Article 129 of the Constitution, to request an advisory opinion of the Supreme Court on any matter of public importance.

In these circumstances, it is incumbent on the government to seek an advisory opinion as to whether it is lawful for the government to continue complying with provisions of Resolution 46/1 unless and until the UNHRC clarifies its position in regard to the impugned mechanism.


It is in the interest of all Sri Lankans to keep a close eye on what the government is presently doing in Geneva. There is a famous legal maxim that says, “The laws assist the vigilant, not the sleepy.” Ultimately, it is the Sri Lankan people who will pay the price for any mistakes or missteps that successive governments make in regard to their “Geneva Policy.’

(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law)

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Human Papillomavirus vaccine: one that can prevent a cancer



This article has been written as a fervent plea to the parents of little girls of the eligible age group. Please make sure that your precious daughters get this vaccine. It will be an investment for their happiness in the future.

By Dr B. J. C. Perera

All vaccines by definition are substances that are used to stimulate immunity against a particular infectious disease or a specific causative organism. Such vaccines are used to prevent the occurrence of the said diseases in humans and animals. Several vaccines have been introduced to combat such infectious diseases over the last few decades. In some countries, the use of some of these vaccines has led to the elimination of dreaded diseases like Diphtheria, Tetanus, Whooping Cough or Pertussis, Polio, Measles, German Measles or Rubella, just to name a few.

Sri Lanka has a very efficient and inherently equitable system that looks after the Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI) for children and young people. In general, we have been extremely successful in this programme and can boast of over 90 per cent coverage for the vaccination of all children. We have successfully eliminated polio, the last case being confirmed as far back as 1993, and we are free of diphtheria, tetanus, measles and German measles or rubella. The success of the EPI is due to many factors that include government commitment, the unstinted dedication of parents, the promotion of the programme through all media channels and the dedicated work of all grades of healthcare personnel. The very high literacy rate of the populace of our country enables all information regarding vaccination to be most conveniently conveyed to the population. Sri Lanka has been hailed as a country that has achieved so much in this field, but with so few resources. It has been cited as a model to the entire Asian region as well as even the world.

In addition to their undoubted effectiveness in protecting against infective microorganisms, some of these vaccines have other bonus effects. At least two of the vaccines in use today have telling effects in preventing certain cancers. One is the Hepatitis B vaccine. It provides protection against liver cancer. The other is the more recent Human Papillomavirus vaccine (HPV vaccine) which protects females against cancer of the neck of the womb, which is also referred to as the cervix of the womb. That disease is generally referred to as Cervical Cancer.

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is sexually transmitted and most people become infected sometime during their lifetime. In the majority, it is soon after becoming sexually active. Most infections are asymptomatic and usually clear up spontaneously, accounting for remission in 90% within two years. Only 10% of persistent HPV infections with certain genotypes of HPV can persist and progress to changes in the cervix. If infection from cancer-causing HPV types persists over 10-15 years, women can go on to develop precancerous lesions that, if left untreated, develop into cervical cancer. This process takes an average of 20-30 years from infection to the development of cervical cancer.

In 1995, Dr Anne Szarewski, a renowned researcher from the United Kingdom, led a team who outlined the role of human papillomavirus in uterine cervical cancer detection and screening. Then the researchers began work on an HPV vaccine. Szarewski was also a chief investigator, principal investigator and author of key HPV vaccine trials and publications, who helped to develop the bivalent HPV vaccine. The word bivalent is used to indicate that it contains two strains of HPV. HPV infections are very common, often with minimal symptoms, but high-risk HPV strains can go on to cause other medical conditions, particularly cervical cancer.

In 2006, the first vaccine for Human Papillomavirus (HPV) to be used globally was approved. HPV vaccination has now gone on to become a key part of the effort to eliminate cervical cancer. According to the available research results, HPV vaccination could reduce the lifetime risk of cervical cancer by 35–80%; the rather wide range being due to several studies with different methods. The vaccine was initially promptly snapped up in the West, especially in the Scandinavian countries. In Sweden, the coverage of the vaccine is over 80 per cent. However, according to the data put out by the World Health Organization (WHO) in November 2022, the human papillomavirus vaccine against cervical cancer has been introduced in just 41 per cent of low-income countries, even though they represent much of the disease burden, compared to 83% of high-income countries. We have a set of 10-year data on the benefits of the vaccine and in certain Western countries, a significant drop in the morbidity and mortality rates of cervical cancer is already evident.

In Sri Lanka, the National Vaccine Summit in January 2015 recommended the usage of the HPV vaccine and the government introduced it in 2017 for girls within the age range of 10 to 13 years. That age group was decided on the premise that to get the best results, we need to introduce the vaccine before sexual activity starts. The vaccine was to be administered to the selected age groups in the schools free of charge and in the fee-levying private sector. To date, the vaccine is not available through the Immunisation Clinics of the Provinces and the MOH Clinics.

NOW HERE IS THE REAL CRUX OF THE MATTER. For a variety of reasons, the coverage of the HPV vaccine in the entire cohort of eligible girls in Sri Lanka is somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent. This is woefully inadequate coverage to get the best possible results, especially when looked upon in the light of over 90 per cent coverage of the other vaccines in the National Expanded Programme of Immunisation. Cervical cancer ranks among the five commonest cancers in women in Sri Lanka. HPV vaccine is just one of two vaccines that can prevent cancers. All children have had the Hepatitis B vaccine which protects against liver cancer, as it is given through the National Programme of Immunisation. But, and this is a BIG BUT, the only other vaccine, the HPV vaccine that can prevent cervical cancer, shows a rather low uptake.

We do need to escalate the uptake rate of the HPV vaccine to at least around 80 per cent to get reasonable benefits in the reduction of the morbidity and mortality that is currently seen in cervical cancer. I think we have to admit that due to very many reasons, the message has not gone through to the general population in the country. When inquiries are made from the mothers of eligible girls, the vast majority of them are not even aware of the existence of this vaccine and more importantly, the future beneficial potential of this endeavour. The age group selected is a rather tricky cohort. They get upset at the drop of a hat. The last thing they want is an injection. They will run away, as fast as possible, to avoid it. Some are so frightened that it is not uncommon to see them faint even at the sight of the syringe and the needle. One way of getting the cooperation of these little girls is to allow either the mother or the father to be present to hold her hand most reassuringly when the vaccine is administered. An additional initiative would be to make it widely available through the Immunisation Clinics for it to be administered to all those who have missed it when it was given in the school. This is particularly important as the vaccine is quite expensive when administered in the private sector.

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Latest position on debt restructuring process



By Jayampathy Molligoda

According to the announcement made by the Managing Director of the IMF Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF Executive board meeting will be held on 20 March to consider and hopefully approve the EFF arrangement for Sri Lanka. In the meantime, the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank in consultation with IMF have finalised the latest position of Sri Lanka’s Public Debt as at end 2022 just prior to commencement of debt restructuring negotiations with creditors. Having perused the document uploaded to the Ministry of Finance (MOF website) recently, which is a comprehensive summary of debt stock as at end 2022, I have tabulated the summary of the main facts and figures (See Table). As can be seen, the total public debt stock has skyrocketed to US $ 83.6 billion, which includes total foreign debt of US$ 45.6 billion and the local debt of 38 billion in US $ equivalent. The total debt as a % of GDP as stated in the above MOF doc is 128%. The public debt is expected be reduced to 100% of GDP in order to ensure debt sustainability in line with IMF supported program parameters coupled with ‘comparability of treatment principle’ whilst ensuring equitable burden sharing for all restructured debt.

However, I have my doubts about GDP computation here. As per the MOF doc page 1, the Nominal GDP was stated as Rs. 23.7 trillion for the year 2022. The $ exchange rate used for conversion as Rs.363.10 clearly indicating that it is the year end figure, they have taken the year end Exchange rate of Rs 363.10 per US$. It is pertinent to ask the question as to why ‘year- end exchange rate’ figure to convert our annual GDP in rupee to US dollars? It should have been the ‘average exchange rate’ as in the past so many years computed by CBSL. As a result, the GDP (in US$ terms) works out to US$ 65.2 billion only. That’s why the total public debt stock of US$ 83.6 billion works out to 128% of GDP – my initial query is; why did they take year-end figure of Rs363.10 instead of taking the average exchange rate?

Besides, the real critical issue is how to reduce the debt stock to a level of 100% of GDP in the context of declining GDP (- 7.8% in 2022) and on the other hand, our debt stock is on the rise. More importantly, if we take the total ‘multilateral debt’ out, then the foreign debt is US $ 34 billion only, which includes ISBs and bilateral loans. Assuming a higher ‘haircut’ of 33% for foreign debt is agreed upon, it works out to 11 billion thus reducing the total public debt to 73 billion only.

In this regard, The President in his latest open letter dated 14 March ‘23 to Sri Lanka’s official Bilateral creditors has clearly indicated that there will be equitable treatment of burden sharing in respect of all creditors (except IMF/WB/ADB) Quote; ” ..we reiterate our commitment to a comparable treatment of all our external creditors with a view to ensuring all round equitable burden sharing for all restructured debt. To that end, we will not conclude debt treatment agreements with any official bilateral creditor or any commercial creditors or any group of such creditors on terms more favourable than those agreed. …To this end we also confirm that we have not and we will not make any side agreements with any creditor aimed at reducing the debt treatment impact on that creditor.”

In the circumstances, my own view is we are reluctantly compelled to restructure local debt i.e.; TBs and, it is inevitable that the local debt of USD equivalent of 38 billion would also need to be taken into consideration for debt restructuring – otherwise there is no way of reducing the total public debt stock to the level that is required as per IMF conditions. This would create a serious issue for our ‘finance system stability’ and all our commercial banks will be in trouble. Further the deposit holders including pension funds are badly affected. The temperature of social unrest is brought closer to the boiling point.

As stated in the global research article by Jonathan Manz recently, former Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank, and Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz, has slammed the IMF for unleashing riots on nations the IMF is dealing with; he has pointed out that the riots are written into the IMF plan to force nations to agree with the average 111 conditions laid down by the IMF and they destroy a country’s democracy and independence. He has been a critique of IMF causing great damage to countries through the economic policies it has prescribed countries to follow in order to qualify for IMF loans. However, neither Stiglitz nor any other eminent economist has yet to come out with a practical and alternative policy framework to overcome the most serious economic and financial crisis faced in the 75 years of Sri Lanka’s independence.

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