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Boris Johnson’s promise to share vaccines with poorer nations will ring hollow if it comes with a price tag

The prime minister has been clear that the UK will share its surplus vaccines. What he hasn’t explained is who is going to pay for them

Baroness Sugg
Wednesday 24 February 2021 14:38 GMT
Boris Johnson addresses G7 leaders at virtual meeting

The prime minister’s promise at the G7 this weekend that the UK will share our sizeable extra vaccine supplies with low-income countries was well received across the globe. But that promise will ring hollow if it comes with a price tag.

Thanks to the incredible work of the UK Vaccines Taskforce and the NHS, we are in the enviable position of having vaccinated nearly one in four of our population. We have on order, and have committed to pay for, enough doses to vaccinate nearly four times our population. As things stand, we have at least 113 million spare doses, with many more if other vaccine candidates are, as expected, licensed in the coming months.

If this was a competition, we would be leading the world. But to have winners there have to be losers, and in a global pandemic we need all countries to succeed. Yet according to the UN, 130 countries in the world have not received a single dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Boris Johnson has committed to share our supply of vaccines. This is absolutely the right thing to do, from a moral standpoint as well as firmly in our own national self-interest. As the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said this week, this is not a matter of charity. It’s a matter of epidemiology.

The manufacture and production of Covid-19 vaccines has been one of the biggest challenges in the race to vaccinate. The government has been clear that the UK will be passing on the ability to buy the majority of our excess vaccines to the Covax facility, the international body led by the WHO and others to ensure Covid-19 vaccines are distributed fairly to low- and middle-income countries. And this is the right place for them to go.

But the other big challenge is of course the financial cost, and the government has not been clear on who is going to pay for these vaccines. Many assumed after the PM’s announcement that the UK would be donating the cost of these vaccines to low-income countries, but due to the planned cut in UK international development spending this year, it appears we are not currently in a position to do so. Instead we may simply be transferring what is sitting as a liability on the Treasury’s balance sheet over to the Covax facility. A move that would enable countries to purchase the extra vaccine stock that the UK had previously reserved, but only if they could afford it.

The UK is heading in the opposite direction to France, Germany and the majority of our G7 friends and partners, who are increasing spending on international development. The United States has added billions to their development budget. We are the only G7 country to be cutting our support to the international community this year. Countries such as Russia and China are investing heavily in vaccine diplomacy.

Development spend was already cut by £2.9bn last year, because as the spend is linked to our gross national income it rises and falls with the strength and weakness of our economy. The government’s announcement to reduce spending to just 0.5 per cent of gross national income will mean a further cut of around £4.5bn this year. Already this is causing devastating cuts to projects delivering everything from basic nutrition and education to health services and security. And this is happening in the midst of a global health, economic and education crisis, which the World Bank estimates could push a further 124 million people into extreme poverty.

UK Covid-19 vaccinations: Latest figures

In addition to ending these life-saving programmes, the constraints on the development budget means that we are not in a position to properly invest in the global vaccination effort. Whilst we may be signing over the ability to buy our excess vaccine doses, we will need someone else to pay for them.

The law that governs the spending of 0.7 per cent of our income on development has not yet been changed in parliament, and it will meet strong opposition should the government try to do so, not least because every MP pledged to keep this promise when they were elected 18 months ago. And while the world has changed significantly since then, the need for international development assistance is only greater.

Instead the prime minister could stick to the commitment made to the world, and invest more in helping to end the global pandemic. In the year he is chairing the G7 and presiding over the most important global climate summit in recent years, this would show true global leadership.

As long the virus remains unchecked anywhere on the planet, it will continue to mutate, cross borders, and wreak havoc on communities and the global economy. And each new strain increases the risk of the disease evolving to an extent where current vaccines, diagnostics and treatments no longer work. Ensuring that people everywhere have access to a vaccine in 2021 is the fastest way to protect the most vulnerable and speed the recovery for everyone.

The UK can, and should, play a leading role in the global vaccination effort, and it is in the prime minister’s gift to do so.

Baroness Sugg is a Conservative life peer who has sat under this title in the Lords since 11 October 2016

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