Boris Johnson will lay out plans to make the UK one of the biggest funders of both the World Health Organisation and its vaccine procurement facility, in a set of measures intended to show Britain taking a bigger role in the international fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
The UK plans to commit a total of £571m to the WHO’s Covax programme, designed to facilitate the equitable distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine around the world, according to a government statement released ahead of Mr Johnson’s planned speech to the UN General Assembly on Saturday. That commitment will be split between £71m to secure purchase rights for up to 27m vaccine doses for Britain and £500m in aid funding to help 92 of the world’s poorest countries also access doses.
In addition, Mr Johnson will use the speech to announce that Britain has pledged £340m in funding to the WHO over the next four years, a 30 per cent increase on the previous four-year period. If the US completes its withdrawal from the health body next year, as intended by president Donald Trump, the UK’s financial commitment would make it the WHO’s single biggest state donor. In the last four year period, Britain was the third biggest contributor behind the US and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“After nine months of fighting Covid, the very notion of the international community looks tattered,” Mr Johnson will tell the UN. “Here in the UK, the birthplace of Edward Jenner who pioneered the world’s first vaccine, we are determined to do everything in our power to work with our friends across the UN to heal those divisions and to heal the world.”
The move is likely to be seen as an attempt by Mr Johnson to show that Britain still takes its international responsibilities — and commitment to multilateralism — seriously, despite the often fraught process of its departure from the EU.
Domestically, Mr Johnson’s own leadership has been widely criticised during the pandemic over issues including PPE shortages in hospitals, a lack of sufficient testing and the slow rollout of a “test and trace” programme.
David Harper, previously special adviser to the assistant director-general for Health Security and Environment at the WHO and a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, described the financial commitments as “very positive”.
“The WHO will be pleased to have the money and the vote of confidence it deserves and needs in terms of helping global solidarity,” Mr Harper said. “The UK has been seen as a very influential player for many years. What it has in terms of expertise in science and medicine is really the envy of many countries and the WHO looks to the UK to be able to input contributions in knowledge and expertise.”
The amount Britain has committed to Covax is larger than the pledges of most countries and regions that have made their investments public to date. The EU, representing 27 member states, has pledged €400m ($470m), Brazil has committed $450m, Japan has pledged $165m, and New Zealand has committed $183m.
Mr Johnson will also outline an ambition to use the UK’s G7 presidency next year to implement a five-point plan to prevent future pandemics and global health crises. Those measures would include setting up a network of zoonotic research hubs to identify the threat of new pandemics within animal groups before they start, increasing manufacturing capacity for the production of treatments and vaccines, and reducing trade barriers that have impeded the coronavirus response.