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Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, most governments, including the UK’s, have emphasised that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

The UK Government has provided aid and used its diplomatic leverage to help control the pandemic and limit its impact on health and wider society.

This briefing describes the aid and other forms of support provided by the UK Government in response to the pandemic, the impact of aid spending reductions, debates on increasing global supply of vaccines, and evaluations of UK efforts.

Was the UK and world prepared?

The Covid-19 pandemic was not the first threat to global health, the most recent being the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014. Evaluations of the UK Government’s aid response to that virus were broadly positive, but noted the world was slow to react and more could be done to support core health systems so that they are better prepared for such outbreaks.

UK aid on health has supported a range of activities, including disease prevention, basic health infrastructure and reproductive health. The UK has been the largest donor to Gavi, the vaccine alliance, since its establishment in 2000. Gavi has supported the development of health systems and vaccine campaigns in low- and middle- income states.

From 2010 to 2019, around 10 percent of UK Official Development Assistance (ODA) was spent on health. These figures exclude contributions to the core budgets of multilateral organisations but do include bilateral and other multilateral funding.

ODA refers to aid intended to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries. Aid given must be reported to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 

UK Government spending

In 2020, the UK Government committed £1.39 billion to tackle the health, humanitarian, and socio-economic effects of the pandemic. Around two-thirds of this (£829 million) has supported the development and distribution of vaccines, tests and treatments.

In 2021/22, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will spend £1.31 billion on global health and security. This includes commitments to the World Health Organization (WHO) and Covax, the global initiative to secure fair access to Covid-19 vaccines.

Most pandemic-related aid spending is classed as ODA and means that the Government is likely to pause or reduce other aid programmes to stay within its target of spending 0.5 percent of Gross National Income (GNI) on ODA in 2021/22. In November 2020, the Government announced it would not meet the UN target of spending 0.7 percent of GNI on ODA in 2021, citing the economic and fiscal impact of the pandemic on the UK. The UK has met the UN target every year since 2013.

The 100 million vaccines the UK is due to donate to other counties by June 2022 will be in addition to the £10 billion allocated as UK ODA in 2021.

Some reductions and termination of health aid programmes have been announced. These reportedly include funding for research into neglected tropical diseases, essential healthcare in Bangladesh, and sequencing Covid-19 variants in South Asia.

NGOs have argued UK aid spending on health is insufficient to secure the global recovery from the pandemic and the delivery of core health services.

Supporting vaccine manufacture and distribution

The World Trade Organization (WTO) estimates that in 2021 global vaccine manufacturing capacity needs to triple from 5 to 15 billion doses. Countries such as India and South Africa, joined recently by France and the US, have argued the waiving of intellectual property rights on vaccines will enable a ramping up of production.

Both the UK and Germany have so far opposed the move, arguing it would undermine incentives for companies to innovate. In May, the UK reportedly joined WTO discussions. The Government has sought to work with industry and multilateral bodies to identify scope for increased manufacture globally.

Diplomatic efforts

At the UN, the UK has supported calls for ceasefires in countries such as Yemen and Ethiopia to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid and administration of vaccines. However, ceasefires were rarely observed. Commentors argue greater donations to Covax will produce incentives to adhere to future ceasefires.

In 2021, the UK held the G7 Presidency. While the June 2021 Summit saw G7 leaders commit to share 1 billion vaccines over the next year and support for the WHO and global health security, the summit fell short of hopes of NGOs and bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and WHO. They argued vaccines must be donated sooner and more funding committed to lower-income states.

Future evaluations

In May 2021, the Independent Commission on Aid Impact announced a review into the UK aid response to Covid-19. It will be published in Autumn 2021. This will focus on the credibility, coherence, and efficiency of aid spending.

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