Ten questions on the next phase of the UK’s COVID-19 response
5. How will the UK ensure a sustained commitment to global solidarity?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been truly global, in a way that few other crises have been. This global nature indicates a need for action to prioritise and feed into global efforts, in recognition of a moral responsibility towards others which extends beyond geographical boundaries. Financial and logistical support for less well-resourced countries will be essential in order to ensure that the pandemic can be brought under control - an issue particularly important in the context of the development and allocation of vaccines.
A number of commentators have already warned of the rise in “vaccine nationalism”, where money and national interest wins out and wealthier countries pre-purchase huge stocks of vaccines in development to the detriment of others. Our rapid policy briefing Fair and equitable access to COVID-19 treatments and vaccines highlights the importance for policies for fair and equitable access to be in place prior, or concurrent, to development and distribution, as well as highlighting the challenges around regulation, commercial practices, and intellectual property rights that need to be addressed.
Considerable steps have already been taken, including the UK’s £250 million pledge to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the international coalition to find a vaccine, and, most recently, agreement to the WHO’s COVID-19 vaccine allocation plan, Covax. The UK’s commitment to these initiatives is to be welcomed, but it is not without question. The UK joined online on deadline day amid struggles to meet funding targets, with the WHO arguing that more countries need to contribute in order to meet the $2 billion target. Furthermore, under the Covax scheme, vaccines will initially be made available to 3% of the population of participating countries, building over time to 20%. There is a question of what will happen after those targets are met and whether there will be a sustained commitment from the UK to support low- and middle-income countries, or a retreat into focusing on increasing UK stocks.
There is also a tension with an increasingly isolationist political approach (see, for example, the Prime Minister’s comments on there being “an important difference between our country and other countries around the world: our country is a freedom-loving country”. HC Deb (22 September 2020) vol. 680. col. 184-5), British exceptionalism, and developments which hint at a politicisation of aid. Rather than solidarity in the truest sense of the word - a willingness to carry costs to assist others in recognition of a shared feature, system, or interest - there is a risk of seeking a much more narrow concept of solidarity, through exclusion or exceptionalism; a resowing of many of the social and political divisions seen in the UK in recent years. We must ensure that global solidarity and a commitment to equitable allocation of vaccines is not a temporary fix or mere rhetoric, but is borne out in action.