Downing Street today appeared to try to distance itself from Mike Pompeo’s alleged claim that the boss of the World Health Organisation had been ‘bought’ by China.
The US Secretary of State allegedly told a private meeting of MPs yesterday that Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had struck a bargain with the communist regime to secure his election to the post of WHO director-general.
A WHO spokesman said it ‘strongly rejects any ad hominem attacks and unfounded allegations’ against its leadership.
Number 10 this afternoon insisted Dr Tedros, and the WHO more broadly, have an ‘important role to play’ in the ongoing fight against coronavirus.
Mr Pompeo is also said to have told the meeting of MPs that the UK had been provided with US intelligence on which Chinese officials to target with sanctions for human rights abuses.
He apparently said that American intelligence had been handed to the UK relating to violations committed against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. Boris Johnson has faced repeated calls from Tory backbenchers and Labour to impose sanctions.
Mr Pompeo’s remarks will heap further pressure on the PM to take action, with China having already warned that imposing sanctions would prompt a ‘resolute response’.
Asked what Mr Johnson thought of the suggestion that the WHO chief had been ‘bought’ by China, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: ‘The World Health Organisation continues to have an important role to play in leading the global health response to the pandemic.
‘The UK is a major donor to the WHO alongside many other countries and institutions.
‘The UK continues to be an advocate of reform in the WHO to ensure it can respond as quickly and effectively as possible to global health emergencies.’
Asked if the UK has ‘full confidence’ in the WHO’s leadership, the spokesman said: ‘The PM believes that the WHO and its director general are playing an important role in leading the global health response to the pandemic.
‘As I said, the UK continues to be an advocate for reform in the WHO to ensure it can respond as quickly and effectively as possible to global health emergencies.’
Earlier this month Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, set out the UK’s new post-Brexit sanctions regime, with Russian and Saudi nationals among the first wave of people to be targeted.
The Government faced criticism for failing to name any Chinese officials in the first wave of sanctions as Mr Raab suggested it takes time to build cases against people and that he would not pre-empt potential future action.
But The Times said that Mr Pompeo had told the meeting with MPs ‘the intelligence has now been shared’ setting out who should be targeted over Chinese human rights abuses.
Number 10 would not be drawn directly on the matter but the PM’s spokesman said: ‘We work closely with our international partners on a number of topics including the gross and egregious human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang.’
Mr Pompeo used a press conference alongside Mr Raab yesterday to indicate that more action was needed from US allies, including the UK, to respond to an increasingly assertive China.
‘We think that the entire world needs to work together to ensure that every country – including China – behaves in the international system in ways that are appropriate and consistent with the international order,’ he said.
‘You can’t go make claims for maritime regions that you have no lawful claim to. You can’t threaten countries and bully them in the Himalayas. You can’t engage in cover-ups and co-opt international institutions like the World Health Organisation.’
Mr Pompeo’s comments came amid rising tensions between the UK and Beijing after rows over Huawei, Hong Kong, coronavirus and human rights abuses.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said the UK Government needed to adopt a ‘wider strategic approach to dealing with China’.
She said: ‘The Government should accelerate the timetable for Magnitsky sanctions to be imposed on Chinese officials involved in the persecution of the Uighur people in Xinjiang.’