The government has broken its promise to deliver 100 million surplus Covid vaccines to poor countries, after sharply cutting international aid spending.
At a G7 meeting in June last year, Boris Johnson pledged to send the vaccines to developing countries within a year to help close the global vaccine gap and “vaccinate the world”.
But a year later the government has delivered barely a third of the number of promised jabs, with just 36.5 million deployed as of the end of May – a deficit of 63.5 million doses.
Figures published by the government also show that ministers have effectively charged developing countries for the leftover jabs by deducting them from existing aid, and even added a mark-up on the UK’s original purchase price.
The backdrop to the failure to deliver is a stark vaccine divide across the world, with just one in five Africans having received a single dose compared to 65 per cent of all people worldwide. The World Bank expects 198 million people to be pushed into poverty across the globe this year as a result of the pandemic.
The prime minister pledged to parliament last year that the vaccines would not be funded by taking money from the existing aid budget – a vow he appears to have broken.
Statistics for aid spending in 2021 show that £100.4m was taken out of the UK aid budget to cover the cost of the surplus coronavirus vaccines sent abroad.
Labour accused the government of “profiteering” from the pandemic because ministers have counted each vaccine as £4.50 of aid spending, despite paying just £2.30 for doses in the first place, according to the British Medical Journal – a mark-up of 95 per cent.
As a result of this accounting, the government has been able to mark down more than £100m from the aid budget by donating the vaccines the UK had no use for.
Preet Kaur Gill, Labour’s shadow international development secretary, said it was “indefensible” for the government’s cuts to be landing on the world’s poorest. “Once again, this prime minister chases headlines then drastically under-delivers,” she told The Independent.
“Last year Boris Johnson stood up in parliament and promised his government would share vaccines with poorer countries to help us beat the pandemic as quickly as possible, and that he wouldn’t raid the aid budget to pay for vaccines we had going spare.
“Now we learn that not only has he broken his promise, but his government has also profiteered off the pandemic by doubling the price of vaccines for the poorest countries in the world. In the middle of a global crisis, with food prices skyrocketing, it is indefensible for the government to balance the books on the backs of the world’s poorest people.”
The government has claimed that vaccine supply is outstripping demand and said the pledge is no longer important. But aid charity Oxfam said the government was effectively charging poor countries for its “leftovers”.
“The UK government has repeatedly broken its promises to deliver vaccine donations to poorer countries and it’s an outrage that they are recharging the leftover doses they have given to an already depleted aid budget, depriving poor countries of other life-saving aid,” Anna Marriott, health policy manager at the NGO, told The Independent.
She added the UK had also repeatedly “disrupted negotiations” for a waiver of intellectual property for Covid vaccines, which would allow developing countries to make their own doses, meaning they wouldn’t be reliant on donations.
On his return from the G7 summit in June last year, the prime minister was asked by Tory MP Damian Green during an exchange in parliament whether he could guarantee that the doses sent in 2022 would be “be in addition to our existing aid budget”. Mr Johnson replied: “Yes, I can.”
In November last year, The Independent revealed that the UK threw away more than 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine after the life-saving jabs were allowed to pass their expiry date. But developing countries have also criticised the short shelf life of surplus vaccines they have been given by international donors. Tens of millions of doses have been rejected.
Conservative international development minister Amanda Milling said more doses had been earmarked to meet the missed 100 million target, even though they had not actually been delivered on time. “As of 26 May, the UK had donated 82.7 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, of which 36.5 million had already been deployed in-country and the rest were with Covax in the process of being allocated and delivered,” she said.
“The UK has made available 100 million doses. However, global supply now far outstrips demand and countries around the world have greater access to and choice of vaccines. Dose donations are no longer critical. The challenge now is to ensure that developing countries can effectively administer vaccines and the UK supports the work of the Covid-19 Vaccine Delivery Partnership to deliver on this.”
Despite the minister’s claims, under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development rules donations can only be recorded as international aid disbursements “when the beneficiary country has taken delivery of doses”, to prevent countries making spurious claims about theoretical donations.
A spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which oversees international aid spending, said: “The UK has been at the forefront of the international response to Covid-19, spending over £2.1bn since 2020 to help end the pandemic. We have donated over 80 million life-saving vaccines to nearly 40 countries and have made a further 20 million available to meet the 100 million target.”
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