Labour and Conservative MPs have criticised the government for including help for poorer countries battling Covid in its overseas aid budget – a decision that could lead to even deeper cuts in other areas than already expected.
Whitehall sources have told Channel 4 News that a plan to send surplus PPE to India was delayed as the Treasury insisted the items would have to count towards overall aid spending – recently capped at 0.5 per cent of national income down from the 0.7, which had been the decades old standard.
A government source has confirmed that £813 million donated to provide coronavirus vaccines and other tools for the developing world also forms part of the overseas aid budget, known as Official Development Assistance (ODA).
By designating money and equipment donated to poorer countries as ODA, the UK government must squeeze other aid spending to stay within the 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income limit imposed by the chancellor last year.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has not said how much spending designed to help developing countries battle Covid will eat into the ODA budget.
But organisations that used to get substantial financial assistance from the UK government for aid projects are already feeling the pinch.
The Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET) today criticised the government for slashing £48 million in global healthcare funding as part of the wider cuts.
One of the programmes affected, partly run by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, sees NHS staff provide critical training to 78,000 healthcare workers in poorer countries.
That includes Myanmar, where medics have been detained and physically attacked for treating people protesting against the recent military coup.
Dr Rowan Burnstein, a consultant in anaesthesia and intensive care at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, said: “As a critical care consultant in the NHS I am devastated to see the cuts the UK government is making to global health.
“The NHS is stronger for its global ties as a result of this scheme. I know I speak for many when I say we are angry and deeply saddened by these decisions.”
The total scale of cuts is not yet known. The government has refused to answer a Freedom of Information request asking for details of the areas and programmes identified for budget reductions.
In November last year, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced he was reducing the UK’s long-standing commitment to donate a minimum of 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income to overseas aid to 0.5 per cent.
Mr Sunak said: “During a domestic fiscal emergency, when we need to prioritise our limited resources on jobs and public services, sticking rigidly to spending 0.7 per cent of our national income on overseas aid is difficult to justify to the British people, especially when we’re seeing the highest peacetime levels of borrowing on record.”
He added that the government would return to the 0.7 per cent target “when the fiscal situation allows”, and that the UK would remain the second highest aid donor in the G7 group of rich nations.
The cut, together with a shrinking economy during the pandemic, means total overseas aid spending is forecast to fall from around £14.5bn to £10bn in a single year.
The government has confirmed that the UK’s £813 million commitment to the World Health Organization’s ACT-Accelerator partnership – including £548 to provide free vaccines for the world’s poorest nations, “is ODA-eligible and part of the FCDO’s ODA budget”. But the money “will be spent across multiple years”.
Questions remain about how many other donations of money and supplies will also come under the ODA budget, potentially leading to cuts in other places.
The FCDO told Channel 4 News: “The UK was the first country to deliver life-saving medical support to India to help fight Covid-19.
“We sent three oxygen generators, 1,200 ventilators and 495 oxygen concentrators in response to the Indian government’s most urgent priorities.”
It is not clear whether the value of these donations of equipment count as Official Development Assistance.
Channel 4 News understands that a plan to donate 1.6 million items of PPE ordered by the British NHS to healthcare workers was held up due to concerns about ODA spending limit, with Treasury officials insisting that Covid-related assistance had to come within the aid budget.
In the end, India declined the offer of the surplus protective equipment, which was due to expire soon.
Labour MP and International Development Committee chair Sarah Champion said: “If we’ve got surplus let’s give it to the countries in the world that need it most.
“It protects all of us, so why on earth are we squabbling now over which budget heading it goes under.”
Anthony Mangnall, Conservative MP for Totnes, said: “We need certainty and we also need to be able to give assurances to countries around the world that regardless of numbers and accountancy, we will be there to help them.”
An FCDO spokesman told us: “We have approached the government of India to offer excess PPE. To date, they have not requested PPE support from the UK Government.”
In a written ministerial statement last month, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said £1.3 billion of the £8.1 billion of aid due to be spent by his department was for “Covid and global health”.
It’s not clear how much of the £1.3 billion was specific to the pandemic, and we don’t how much of the £2bn due to be spent on overseas aid by other government departments is Covid-related.
The government has followed OECD guidelines in designating some of the money it has spent on the Covax vaccine initiative as overseas aid.
But other countries like Australia have chosen to classify money given to developing countries hit by Covid as a temporary emergency measure, outside normal aid budgets.
Reporting by Cathy Newman and Patrick Worrall.