UK aid cuts 'body blow' to health workers

British MPs call for reform of World Health Organisation to tackle future pandemics

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UK aid cuts are a “body blow” to front line workers tackling diseases and must be reversed when economically possible, the British parliament’s influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee has said.

In its report Global Health, Global Britain, the cross-party group of MPs said it was “only a matter of time before the next pandemic” and, as a result, the multilateral health system must be strengthened.

Earlier this year the government confirmed it would slash its annual aid budget from 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent. It insists the measures are temporary and has highlighted the devastating economic impact of Covid-19.

“It is short-sighted to cut spending on neglected tropical diseases, or health research for lower-income countries, in order to focus on Covid-19,” the MPs said.

“These steps could undermine the response to Covid, and put us all at greater risk from the next pandemic. In particular, cutting spending on important medical research and development programmes is a dangerous false economy, and could endanger Global Britain’s reputation as a science superpower.”

The committee’s chairman Tom Tugendhat said the pandemic had underlined the need for global co-operation and a united response.

“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,” he said.

“Strengthening global health security must be a foreign policy priority; recent cuts are a body blow to those on the front line fighting disease.”

In tackling future pandemics, the MPs said a key focus must be on bolstering health systems in the developing world. They urged the government not to allow global health security to “slide down the agenda once Covid-19 is under control in the UK".

Last year, the government announced it would integrate its foreign and development ministries to empower its international policy.

But the committee said the government was wasting the opportunity “by making ill-considered cuts to vital global health programmes".

The British government was also urged to quickly take steps to reduce vaccine inequity, which has seen poorer nations lag far behind the developed world in inoculating people.

The MPs also argued that the pandemic had exposed frailties in the multilateral health system. They argued that the World Health Organisation needed to be reformed in order to better respond to future crises.

While they praised the work of the WHO during the pandemic, the MPs said it lacks the necessary funds, power and independence.

“There is little doubt that the WHO has done vital work, with limited powers, in challenging, unprecedented circumstances,” said Mr Tugendhat.

“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.”

The committee recommended that the UK should press for the WHO to have greater transparency and accountability in its work.

“The WHO operates in a highly political realm, and the director general, who is directly elected by member states, inevitably comes under political pressure,” the report said.

The government “should support reforms to give the WHO more financial stability, to insulate its leadership from political pressure, and to make its operations more transparent. It should work with others to give the WHO greater powers to independently gather information on outbreaks, mirroring the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” it added.

The WHO was also accused of failing to hold China, where Covid-19 first emerged last year, to account over the origins of the virus.

“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,” said Mr Tugendhat.

MPs also showed support for calls to limit the director general to one term in office, which would be extended from five to seven years.

Mr Tugendhat said “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”.

Updated: September 29, 2021, 11:01 PM