A health worker administers an oral polio vaccine to a child. Photo by: Sanofi Pasteur / CC BY-NC-ND

The U.K. government is set to slash funding for polio eradication by 95%, Devex understands, in a move campaigners have branded “catastrophic.”

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was due to be given £100 million ($139 million) this year to fund efforts to eliminate the disease, which mainly affects children and causes paralysis. Instead, GPEI will be given just £5 million.

This follows an incomplete donation to GPEI last year, with £70 million delivered of the £100 million promised to the organization, which is run by the World Health OrganizationUNICEF; Gavi, the Vaccine AllianceRotary International; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The reduced funding comes as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office works through cutting its aid budget, a result of the government moving to spending 0.5% of gross national income on official development assistance, rather than the legally mandated 0.7%.

“It is deeply unfortunate when the polio eradication initiative desperately needs to accelerate, to have the U.K.’s contribution hugely cut,” said David Salisbury, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s global health program, who warned the slashed funding “could threaten the eradication initiative.”

“It would be very sad if the U.K.’s withdrawing of these funds compromised the achievement of polio eradication, particularly as the U.K. had been such a reliable and generous supporter in the past,” he added.

This sentiment was echoed by Aaron Oxley, executive director at RESULTS UK, who said the “word that most sprang to mind to describe it [the cut] is ‘catastrophic.’”

U.K. funding to GPEI was a “textbook example of excellent aid spending” because it was unrestricted, meaning it “can be spent where it can absolutely do the most good,” Oxley said.

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He continued: “The impact of the cuts goes beyond the raw monetary value; that money is disproportionality valuable to the GPEI because of its unrestricted nature. The U.K. helps the GPEI go where it can’t go otherwise and do things it otherwise is more difficult to fund — that dramatically increases the effectiveness of the polio response.”

The United Kingdom pledged £400 million to polio eradication in 2019 to fund polio vaccines and distribution. Former International Development Secretary Alok Sharma said at the time: “If we were to pull back on immunisations, we could see 200,000 new cases each year in a decade. This would not only be a tragedy for the children affected and their families, but also for the world. We cannot let this happen.”

The U.K. has long been a key donor to efforts to fight polio, having donated $1.6 billion since 1985, according to GPEI. Oxley said cutting polio funding demonstrated “spectacular shortsightedness” and risks wasting previous U.K. investments in the area.

An FCDO spokesperson issued a statement highlighting the U.K.’s £14.5 billion aid spend in 2020 and the £10 billion aid budget for 2021. The impact of the pandemic on the economy meant “temporarily reducing” the aid budget, according to the statement. “We are working through what this means for individual programmes. Decisions will be announced in due course,” said the spokesperson.

Update, April 28, 2021: This article has been updated to reflect comments from FCDO.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.