19th July 2022

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the world’s third biggest killer – accounting for more deaths than HIV and Malaria combined. Yet around the world, governments have been slow to adequately prioritise it as part of their health security agenda. In this article, Green Party Peer Baroness Natalie Bennet explores how lawmakers in the UK are working to ‘centre’ AMR in UK politics, with the aim of unlocking the support and resources that are needed to tackle a threat that threatens not just humans, but all life on Earth…

It is clear to all of us who care about AMR that decisive action on the matter is impossible without full government engagement. But in Parliament, we face an uphill struggle in trying to centre AMR in law and policy.

As a Green Party Peer in the House of Lords, I appreciate that people do not exist in a vacuum.  All health is fundamentally interlinked by the . Human, animal, and environmental health are inseparable and feed back on each other in complex ways. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our waterways and our food systems. Regular readers of this very section of BSAC’s website may remember an article I wrote at the start of the pandemic, on the contribution of our food systems to infectious disease and AMR in light of Covid-19.

AMR is a topic I raise regularly in the House of Lords. Notably, I submitted a Topical Oral Question which saw cross-resistance mentioned for the first time in Parliament in almost a quarter century, and spoke about AMR in January during debates on the Health and Care Bill.

I flagged it in October 2020 during the debate on the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill; in June 2021 during debates on the Agriculture Bill; and again in January during a short debate on the impact of the Free Trade Agreement with Australia on British agriculture.

Thankfully, I am not alone, although those who engage with the issue could hold a meeting in our smallest committee room. Lord Trees of Ross, for example, did an excellent job of addressing AMR during a debate on sewage in our waters secured by my Green colleague Baroness Jenny Jones. In fact Baroness Jones also highlighted it as a key issue in her contribution to a short debate on sewage disposal rates.

However, it is endlessly frustrating that we find ourselves struggling through different Bills coming up against the same issues time and again. We find the same problem with the climate emergency and nature crisis – they’re far from mainstreamed in government thinking.

I should note, of course, that the UK is certainly a world leader in the AMR space. British animal agriculture stakeholders more than halved their use of antibiotics in a few years by working together in an amazing fashion—something we could learn from in politics. Although antibiotic use in factory farming – as well as its other multiple environmental impacts – remains a huge concern.

The Government has had a National Action Plan in place since 2000, and thanks in no small part to the efforts of Dame Sally Davies, our strategy became more bold and comprehensive throughout the last two decades. The oft-cited Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, published in 2016 and cited in seemingly every news story and grant application since, was commissioned by the UK Government. The GRAM paper, the results of which I raised in Parliament less than 24 hours after its release, was spearheaded by British researchers.

Yet despite all of this and the high-minded rhetoric from the Government—such as in response to my recent Written Question on antimicrobials in personal care products—we see far too little concrete action to address the issue. It is all well and good to have an action plan where the claim of “world-beating” looks far less hollow than usual, but this means nothing if the Government systematically undermines it through inaction in the other Bills it brings forwards.

If the Government chooses not to take immediate and drastic action against water companies who pour raw sewage into our rivers; allows clinical antiseptics like chlorhexidine in hand sanitisers; and puts economic growth (however minute) ahead of low antibiotic use in animal agriculture through its Australian free trade agreement, our hands are tied.

There is only so much that lawmakers can do when the Executive fails to act. Trying to raise important issues like AMR or the climate emergency can feel like banging one’s head against a brick wall, when faced with an intransigent Government more concerned with prohibiting peaceful assembly than improving human, animal, and planetary outcomes.

The threat of AMR, like the threat of climate change, is an existential one. It extends beyond humanity and threatens all animal life. Thankfully there are solutions at hand: one simple step the UK Government could take would be to appoint a Minister with a portfolio to address AMR and global health security, as suggested by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Antibiotics. This would allow for greater coordination between all relevant Ministerial departments with AMR in their portfolios (BEIS, HM Treasury, DEFRA, etc). In addition, educational workshops, potentially provided by civil society organisations, could be implemented for teams in these departments to engage them on AMR.

All of this will require the Government to act decisively. With a new administration around the corner, we will soon see where their priorities lie.

 

This article was prepared with assistance from Paul-Enguerrand Fady.

 

If you are a UK PhD student keen to work on addressing these issues in Parliament, apply to BSAC’s new Parliamentary Research Internship. This funded, one-day-per-week scheme runs for 6—12 months and will see the successful applicant work on AMR with Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle in the House of Lords. Consult the scheme’s webpage for further details.

 

 

 

 

GP? Pharmacist? Researcher? Social Scientist? Whatever field you work in, if you’re committed to fighting infection then we want you to join us as a BSAC Member.
Become a member

Having trouble finding what you're after?

Top