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The only response is a united response”: Foreign Affairs publishes “Global Health, Global Britain” report

30 September 2021

Today, the Foreign Affairs Committee publishes its Report “Global Health, Global Britain”. The Report addresses vaccine inequality, cuts to some important health aid programmes, and the need for reform of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Vaccine inequality and misinformation

The Committee calls on the UK Government to urgently address vaccine inequality, increasing the speed and number of vaccines donated through COVAX and ensuring that bilateral donations are planned and timed to give real, sustainable and predictable support to other countries' vaccination campaigns. The Report recommends that the Government set out its strategy for delivering the vaccine to particularly vulnerable groups overseas, including displaced people.

The Report finds that the glaring inequality in access to vaccines created the opportunity for autocracies, such as Russia and China, to seek to undermine the West and expand their influence by donating and selling vaccines.

The Committee urges that the Government pursue a range of measures to create greater vaccine manufacturing capacity in lower-income countries.

Misinformation, including state-backed falsehoods, is a serious threat to global health security. The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) should lead on efforts to counter health misinformation internationally, targeting support to independent local media outlets in regions at risk of high levels of vaccine hesitancy and providing the BBC World Service long-term funding to tackle fake news, with a focus on strategic locations such as Russia and China.

WHO reform

The Committee calls on the Government to take steps to support reform of the WHO, including working with other governments to increase the WHO's powers to independently access countries where an outbreak has been reported, mirroring the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Government should build a partnership of nations to investigate the virus' origins and should make clear what measures it will take to support countries that are facing intimidation from Beijing over their backing for an independent investigation.

The Committee recommends that the Government builds on the momentum of the joint G7 statement supporting Taiwan's participation in the WHO with a renewed push for its attendance at the 2022 World Health Assembly.

Aid cuts

The decision to cut spending on some key global health aid programmes is ill-considered, short-sighted and a dangerous false economy that could endanger Global Britain's reputation as a science superpower.

The Report recommends that the FCDO publicly commit to reinstituting previous levels of funding to these health programmes as soon as the fiscal situation allows. The Committee is disappointed by the lack of transparency over the aid cuts, and over how the decisions have been made, and urges the FCDO to provide a full account of the changes faced by aid-funded health programmes and the reasoning behind these changes.

The Report urges the Government to complete and publish an updated global health strategy by the end of 2021.

Chair's statement

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, said:

“The covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on lives across the world. Viruses do not recognise borders and the last two years have served to underscore the need for cooperation and solidarity in the face of global challenges. A united response is the only response. 

Covid-19 has exposed serious flaws in how the international community responds to global health crises. The next pandemic is a matter of when, not if.

There is little doubt that the WHO has done vital work, with limited powers, in challenging, unprecedented circumstances. However, it is undeniable that the WHO is in need of serious reform. It is critical to make sure that the independence of the WHO cannot be undermined.

While Beijing’s creeping capture of multilateral organisations has been long apparent, their recent repeated attempts to undermine and obstruct a full, independent investigation into covid-19’s origins, and intimidate those pressing for it, should be a warning siren for the international community. The exclusion of Taiwan from WHO forums is inexcusable. Our report recommends that the UK take a leading role in reforms to preserve the integrity and independence of the WHO including increasing its powers and funding. 

The rapid creation of an effective vaccine is a remarkable achievement for international cooperation and has saved a huge number of lives. However, glaring inequalities in vaccine access mean that lower-income countries have been left far behind. Bolstering vaccination rates in these countries is not only a moral imperative but will benefit to us all by slowing the spread of a deadly disease. The UK cannot allow authoritarian states, such as Russia and China, to exploit the shortfall in vaccine supply to gain leverage over other countries.

The decision to cut aid to some vital health aid programmes is a step backward in global health security, and our report urges the Government to reinstate this funding as soon as the fiscal situation allows. Strengthening global health security must be a foreign policy priority; recent cuts are a body blow to those on the frontline fighting disease.”

Further information

Image: CCO