Steve Barclay wrong to claim the WHO has announced the Covid-19 pandemic is ‘officially over’

19 June 2023
What was claimed

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced that the Covid-19 pandemic is officially over.

Our verdict

This is not correct. The WHO has downgraded the Covid-19 pandemic from the highest alert level, so it is no longer considered a public health emergency of international concern. But the WHO says the pandemic is ongoing and Covid-19 remains a global health risk.

“The World Health Organisation has announced that the Covid-19 pandemic is officially over.”

The health secretary Steve Barclay told the NHS Confed Expo conference last week that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the pandemic “officially over”, adding that “its after effects are still very much being felt”.

As Full Fact has written before, this is not quite right. While the WHO did declare last month that the pandemic is no longer a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), it did not say that the pandemic itself was over. In fact, it has been clear that it considers the pandemic to be “ongoing”.

Bad information about health policy can foster distrust of medical professionals, and distract from or undermine medical consensus and public health messaging. It is particularly important that ministers should use language precisely when talking about public health.

We have approached the Department of Health and Social Care for comment, but have not had a statement at the time of publication. 

What did the WHO announce?

Last month the WHO declared that the Covid-19 pandemic is no longer a PHEIC, which is the highest possible level of alarm that mandates countries to act under international health regulations.

The WHO’s director-general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus told a press conference on 5 May: “It is therefore with great hope that I declare Covid-19 over as a global health emergency.

“However, that does not mean Covid-19 is over as a global health threat.”

When deciding whether to downgrade Covid, the WHO’s Emergency Committee considered its criteria for PHEICs—ie, whether the virus constituted “1) an extraordinary event, 2) a public health risk to other States through the international spread, and 3) potentially requires a coordinated international response”.

The committee said that “although SARS-CoV-2 has been and will continue circulating widely and evolving, it is no longer an unusual or unexpected event”. 

However, that doesn’t mean that the WHO has said that the pandemic is over—and in fact, it is still referring to Covid as a pandemic.

Dr Ghebreyesus did not explicitly address the question of whether Covid remained a pandemic in his comments, but the WHO referred in a statement accompanying the announcement to the “ongoing Covid-19 pandemic”.

And a separate statement on the WHO website says that while Covid-19 no longer fits the definition of a PHEIC, this “does not mean the pandemic itself is over, but the global emergency it has caused is, for now”. 

According to the WHO, a pandemic is a description or characterisation of a disease outbreak and technically it does not officially declare pandemics, except in the case of influenza. The term carries no recognition under international law and there is no mechanism for pandemic declaration in the existing legal instruments.

But the WHO can choose to describe diseases as a pandemic, and first characterised Covid-19 as such on 11 March 2020. 

It’s worth noting that some diseases may be characterised as pandemics for many years. In its response to us last month, the WHO mentioned cholera, which its website says has been an ongoing pandemic since 1961.

Image courtesy of the UK Parliament.

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After publishing this fact check, we contacted Steve Barclay MP to request a correction regarding this claim. 

Mr Barclay did not correct this.

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