In the last couple of days, WHO officials have criticised the UK government's approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, describing the government's reliance on developing herd-immunity amongst the British population, and apparent reluctance to put in place quarantines as "ridiculous".

China has also been criticised for its initial response to the virus, which the Financial Times describes as a "cover-up", and which US national security advisor Robert O'Brien says "cost the world community two months" in terms of preparation for the disease. This would appear to be in breach of the International Health Regulations (2005), Article 6 of which states that:

Each State Party shall notify WHO, by the most efficient means of communication available, by way of the National IHR Focal Point, and within 24 hours of assessment of public health information, of all events which may constitute a public health emergency of international concern within its territory

Given the criticisms above, does the World Health Organization have any powers to either enforce health recommendations such as quarantines or lockdowns, powers to punish or sanction countries that refuse to comply with said health recommendations, or powers to punish countries that breach their obligations under the IHR?

I have been able to find this article which describes a panel which investigated this in the wake of the ebola crisis, but I can't find more information about the results of this investigation.

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    The UK is still a permanent member of the UN security council. It can not really be forced by any UN institution. Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 16:10
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    @ReinstateMonica-M.Schröder good point; applies to PRC as well of course. I'm still interested in knowing if sanctions could be brought in theory though.
    – CDJB
    Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 16:12
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    What exactly is the WHO going to do, block medical supplies and personnel from entering the infringing country? Is there any sanction they can apply that wouldn't be totally counterproductive to their grievance and mission? Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 21:29
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    @IllusiveBrian This article shows that punitive measures were investigated in the wake of the ebola crisis; I can't seem to find more on that investigation though
    – CDJB
    Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 21:32
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    @CDJB: You should mention that article from your last comment in your question body. Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 2:21

1 Answer 1


WHO officials have criticised the UK government's approach to the COVID-19 pandemic

Actually the quoted criticism does not come from the WHO, nor from a current employee of the WHO. It comes from

Professor Anthony Costello, ex-director of maternal and child health at the World Health Organisation

The criticism is of the claim that the UK government should

"just let 60% of the population get it"

These appear to be the words of a radio presenter not a published policy of the UK government.

The UK's Health Secretary recently said Herd immunity is not the policy of the UK government.

“Herd immunity is not our policy. It’s not our goal. Our goal is to protect life and our policy is to fight the virus and protect the vulnerable and protect the NHS. And that’s what we’re doing. Now there is a, of course there’s a scientific debate around scientific concepts, but I want to be absolutely crystal clear that we will do what is necessary to protect life,”

So the premise is questionable.

The subject of herd immunity and the 60% figure came from an interview with the chief scientific adviser to the UK government. He was apparently speaking about the conditions for a potential resurgence of COVID-19 next winter and beyond.

Does the World Health Organization have the power to impose sanctions?

Not really, not of the sort the question seems to suggest.

The WHO did impose sanctions on a news-media organisation that leaked information in advance of a publication date. WHO banned the organisation from its press conferences for two weeks.

Any UN member state can apply for membership of the WHO. It seems likely the WHO can, as a sanction, expel a member from the WHO. I suspect only the UN itself could expel a state from the UN.

In the past, the WHO has been associated with criticisms of punitive sanctions on countries as hampering the objectives of the WHO. The WHO seems to generally aim to assist rather than punish countries.

Like any individual or organization, the WHO can advocate for or against a sanction. As a UN specialized agency it is likely to be listened to by the UN assemblies. As I understand it, it does not have the power itself to commit the UN to sanctions.

It is normally UN member states who would apply and enforce punitive sanctions following a resolution of the UN security council of which the UK is a permanent member with veto rights.

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