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We should use our 3.5 million unused Covid vaccines to help vaccinate the world

4 min read

With restrictions on travel beginning to lift, we can start to think about booking foreign holidays for Easter.

But the government’s failure to share the vaccines that they promised means so much more than a potential holiday destination being put on the red list.

As we saw with Delta and Omicron, new variants remain a huge threat and the pandemic will drag on, killing even more people, unless we get back on track with the promise that Boris Johnson made at the G7 last summer. Vaccinate the world by the end of 2022.

While in the west 70 per cent of adults have now received a vaccination, only 9.8 per cent of people across low-income countries have received their first jab. In Africa, immunisation rates in many countries are below 1 per cent, and three in four health workers are yet to receive a single dose.

Yet since the Prime Minister made those promises last summer, this chaotic Conservative government has yet again failed to deliver.

By the end of 2021, Britain had donated less than a quarter of the 100 million surplus doses that Boris Johnson promised in June. Worse, millions of taxpayer-funded doses that could have been donated to poorer countries were allowed to expire. In August alone, the government let 600,000 doses of vaccine pass their use-by-date and be thrown in the bin.

Earlier this month the Health Service Journal (HSJ) revealed a new sickening twist to this scandal. Now it has been reported that 3.5 million unused doses are sitting close to expiry in fridges across the UK on the verge of being thrown away. Those 3.5 million doses are enough to give a first dose to the whole population of Guinea-Bissau, Djibouti and Eswatini combined.

Whether it is £8.7 billion wasted on unusable and overpriced PPE or the £4.3 billion of fraud written off by Rishi Sunak this month, time and again, this government has failed to treat taxpayers’ money with the respect it deserves.

When Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak chose to cut the UK aid budget by a third, we became the only G7 country to cut funding for global health projects during a global pandemic. The short-sightedness and waste of some of these cuts has been jaw-dropping. Even the government’s own aid spending watchdog ICAI raised the alarm about the scale of cuts to programmes that “would have mitigated the long-term damage of the pandemic” and were “delivering good value for money”.

Sharing vaccines, as we promised, with the poorest countries in the world isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Vital research programmes to track new Covid variants were slashed by 70 per cent, pulling the plug on many programmes mid-project, causing years of research to go to waste. Water and sanitation projects, vital to the pandemic effort, were cut by 80 per cent. Programmes to treat tropical diseases were cut by a shocking 95 per cent, leaving millions of people vulnerable to these diseases and risking the wastage of over 270 million doses of lifesaving drugs. These cuts have cost lives and damage the UK’s reputation on the world stage.

Cuts to the aid budget, a wrong-headed choice by the Conservative government, has been widely agreed as impacting negatively on our ability to handle the pandemic.

The IfG was right to warn last year that “political and national self-interest, scientific and economic evidence and an overwhelming ethical case all require the world’s leaders to agree a massive increase in vaccine sharing.” More money will be spent on the costs of new variants than was saved on cuts to international aid.

The pandemic is estimated to cost the UK at least a further £74 billion this year, according to the International Chamber of Commerce. We have already been badly set back by new variants twice. We can’t afford to go through that again.

That is why playing our part in vaccinating the world is an essential pillar of Labour’s 10-point plan for “learning to live well with Covid” announced last month. It is why I have written to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to urge the government to keep its promise to the world’s poorest people and make sure we are sharing our surplus vaccines, not wasting them. Not just for those in the poorest countries in the world, but to protect us at home.

We live in an interconnected world. We always knew that, but the last two years have proven beyond doubt that this virus does not recognise borders.

Sharing vaccines, as we promised, with the poorest countries in the world isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Britain’s security depends on vaccinating the world.


Preet Kaur Gill is the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston.

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