UK’s 100M COVID-19 vaccine donation will be additional to aid budget

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U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits a vaccination center in Islington, England. Photo by: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND

The U.K. government has said its donation of 100 million surplus doses of COVID-19 vaccines will be additional to the country’s target of spending 0.5% of national income on aid, prompting relief from development campaigners.

Development advocates hoped the decision marked the first step back toward the legally enshrined aid-spending target of 0.7%. But there were concerns over the speed of the distribution and the pricing of the donation — details that were missing from the U.K. government’s announcement.

During the leadership summit of G-7 nations from Friday to Sunday, the group is expected to agree to a target of providing 1 billion vaccines to lower-income countries through dose-sharing and financing. The United States announced Thursday that it would send 500 million COVID-19 vaccines to lower-income countries, on top of the country’s previous commitments.

“Really, the G-7’s aim to provide 1 billion doses should be seen as an absolute minimum, and the time frame needs to speed up.”

— Lis Wallace, head of U.K. advocacy, ONE Campaign

A big COVID-19 vaccine announcement has been expected from the United Kingdom for some time, but there were concerns it would put further pressure on a budget that has been squeezed to £10 billion ($14 billion) after the 0.7% target was reduced, chopping £4 billion in the process. As a result of lowering the aid-spending target, numerous development programs have already been damaged or canceled entirely, which Devex has monitored in a tracker.

“The cost of donating the UK’s surpluses will be classified as ODA [official development assistance]. This will be in addition to the £10bn already committed in aid this year,” the government said in a statement.

“It is a huge relief that these donations will be on top of the 0.5% UK aid spending, or we would have seen further devastating cuts,” wrote Liz Sugg, who quit her role as a minister at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office over the decision to slash the 0.7% target.

“Hopefully this means we will return to 0.7% by the beginning of next year, as so many MPs [members of Parliament] asked for earlier this week,” Sugg added.

Aaron Oxley, executive director at health advocacy organization RESULTS UK, said that the announcement is a “great first step” and that he is “thrilled” at the “absolutely critical” decision to make the donation in addition to the £10 billion aid budget.

But he added: “We need to remember the reason we’re thrilled is because they cut money from the aid budget. In any normal year, if the government was behaving lawfully, this wouldn’t have been such a dramatic announcement. … Our praise needs to be tempered by the fact it didn't need to be cut in the first place.”

Whether the U.K. vaccine donation will be priced at the manufacturing cost, which is relatively low, or instead at the increased price set for high-income countries still needs to be clarified, added Oxley. He said: “It matters because it sets a dangerous precedent for the pricing of medical products globally. It’s not fair or equitable to buy lower-income countries vaccines at high-income country prices and using that to say, ‘Look how much we’ve given in aid.’”

Tracking the UK’s controversial aid cuts

Keep up with the effects of the U.K. aid cuts via our regularly updated tracker.

Campaigners also expressed concerns with the speed of the proposed vaccine distribution, 80% of which will be given through the COVAX initiative and the rest bilaterally. Five million of the surplus U.K. doses will be distributed by the end of September “primarily for use in the world’s poorest countries,” said the government statement. It added that 25 million more doses would be sent out by the end of 2021 and the remaining doses within the next year.

Lis Wallace, head of U.K. advocacy at the ONE Campaign, called for vaccine-sharing to begin immediately. “There’s a lot to like here, but it’s not happening anywhere near fast enough,” she told Devex. “Acceleration is the key message. We need doses shared with COVAX right now to address the global supply crisis.”

She added: “Really, the G-7’s aim to provide 1 billion doses should be seen as an absolute minimum, and the time frame needs to speed up. This must be backed by additional funding and a fully costed plan to end the pandemic for good.”

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.