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Vaccine drive for delegates being considered for UN COP26 climate summit

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The UK and the UN are exploring the possibility of a special vaccination programme to ensure the global climate conference in Glasgow can proceed face-to-face in November.

Pressure is building on the UK to find a way to safely host the UN COP26 in person as climate ministers say face-to-face discussions are imperative, while a further postponement of the meeting already delayed by a year due to coronavirus risks drawing the ire of developing countries.

Alok Sharma, COP26 president, confirmed on Friday that vaccines were among the options being considered.

“We are exploring every possible covid security measure, and that includes testing, vaccines and other measure, to keep COP26 covid-free,” he said in a speech in Glasgow.

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He also renewed his call to end coal financing. “Glasgow must be the COP that consigns coal to history,” he said, adding that this is a “personal priority” for him.

Last week he said his COP team was “proceeding on the basis that this event is happening in November”, adding, “no one is actually looking for a delay”.

While a formal proposal about a special vaccination drive for delegates has not been made yet, the issue has been raised in planning discussions and is a particular concern for countries that lack vaccine access.

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About 30,000 people attend the UN climate conference in a normal year. However, UK organisers are zeroing in on a “hybrid model” that would allow national delegates and negotiators to meet in person while almost everyone else attends online.

Decisions around the logistics and format for the conference must be approved by the Bureau of the COP, a UN body composed of delegates from 11 countries, which next meets in early June.

Even a “hybrid model” would involve thousands of people meeting — typically attendance includes about 9,000 national delegates from nearly 200 countries.

Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, said a faster global vaccine rollout would enable the COP. “I find it outrageous that we have the vaccines ‘haves’ and the vaccine ‘have nots’, so the more and the quicker we roll it out, the faster we will overcome the pandemic — and have a successful COP,” she told the Financial Times.

The uneven access to vaccines and a specific COP vaccine programme has become a sticking point. “The issue has been raised informally and bandied about,” said one source familiar with the discussions. But the UK might not be able to pull off a special programme, the person said. “It’s simply too politically explosive and sensitive.”

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Alok Sharma, COP26 president, with German environment minister Svenja Schulze this month © Kay Nietfeld/EPA/Shutterstock

Organisers are closely watching the Tokyo Olympics in July as a test for large international events. The International Olympic Committee and BioNTech/Pfizer have struck a deal to supply doses to all delegations, although Olympic athletes are not required to be vaccinated to compete.

The UK has not commented directly on whether it would help organise vaccines for COP delegates. “We are working closely with our public health officials, Scottish government, all our partners and the UN exploring how we can have an in-person event to enable relevant delegates to participate on an equal footing,” said a spokesperson.

At stake at COP26 are the final rules for the climate agreement struck at the Paris COP in 2015, for which two key issues — global carbon markets, and emissions reporting baselines — have yet to be ironed out.

Frans Timmermans, EU climate chief, has called for in-person talks, saying negotiations would probably not succeed virtually.

“Given the fact that this is such a crucial negotiation and it’s going to be on a knife’s edge, it’s certainly not assured that we will have a positive negotiation in Glasgow, far from it,” he said recently. “So if we want to succeed we need to be able to sit down [in the same room].”

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