UK to redirect coronavirus vaccine supplies to Yemen

Britain to distribute vaccines in pursuit of foreign policy gains

This Aden hospital was damaged in fighting in April. Mohammed Al Qalisi for The National
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Britain has developed plans to donate coronavirus vaccinations on a “strategic basis” that would allow it to make a specific impact in countries in need, including Yemen and Lebanon.

Sources in the Foreign Office said Dominic Raab's disclosure to parliament that the UK would be using so-called vaccine diplomacy to extend Britain’s soft power influence by donating 20 million doses would specifically include the troubled Middle East states.

It is understood the majority will go to the Middle East and Africa where some countries have had only 1 per cent of their population inoculated.

"The UK could probably quickly deliver jabs but I suspect that the only place that you can have any real influence right now with Covid would be in the capital Sanaa, and Aden," said Michael Stevens, a Middle East expert at the RUSI think tank.

Britain is also donating 80 million doses as part of a billion being given by G7 countries to Covax, the UN body responsible for sending vaccines to poorer countries.

Mr Raab said Britain’s further 20 million does would be distributed “on a strategic basis and allocations will be announced in due course”.

Internally displaced Yemenis receive food aid as Britain promises to give more money and coronavirus vaccines to the war-weary country. AFP

He revealed the strategy during parliamentary questions in which the continuing humanitarian crisis in Yemen was highlighted with Conservative and opposition Labour MPs condemning the UK government’s £4 billion ($5.45 billion) cut to the overseas aid budget.

Mr Raab said that despite the worst economic contraction in 300 years, Britain was “one of the largest bilateral donors” supporting humanitarian efforts in Yemen.

“We are concerned about the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” he told MPs. “We have given over a billion pounds worth of aid since the conflict began

“But it's not just about money, important though that is, it is also about bringing the diplomatic power to bear. We are working alongside the Saudis and the Yemeni government to bring about peace. Unfortunately, the people we have the most difficulty engaging with meaningfully are the Houthis and I publicly call upon them to engage with us to bring peace to these people who so desperately need it.”

The biggest issue for vaccination in Yemen is the logistics of keeping doses refrigerated with little infrastructure still in place after years of war.

“Sadly, Yemen’s healthcare system has gone back 100 years, so this is not the only issue but I think that Britain shipping a million Covid vaccines is necessary," Mr Stephens said.

He said that an estimated 80 per cent of Yemenis had already been infected by coronavirus, so the country was potentially heading towards herd immunity

There was also little realistic hope of a peace deal with the rebel Houthis seemingly in a strong position with “little incentive” for them to come to the bargaining table, he said.

Other MPs raised the declining situation in Lebanon, which is still struggling after the Beirut port explosion last year and continuing political instability.

Asked if the country would have to endure vaccine shortages on top of other hardships, Mr Raab said Lebanon had received 33,000 Astra-Zeneca doses from Britain, with others to follow. “I think that that demonstrates the value that the UK is providing, not just with the domestic roll-out, but abroad as well,” he said.

But Mr Raab was accused of presiding over the major cuts to overseas aid, which would have a negative effect on millions of people in less wealthy nations.

“If this government has a conscience, it would want to know how many lives will be lost as a result of these cuts and I urge him to publish the impact assessments immediately, so more lives can be saved,” said Labour’s Preet Gaur Gills, MP, shadow international development secretary.

Mr Raab reiterated that despite the cuts the UK as a country was still the world's third biggest aid donor.

Updated: July 21, 2021, 2:11 PM