Yesterday MPs debated the government’s plans for health as set out during the state opening of parliament. I was pleased to see the government rightly recommit, in the Queen’s speech, to the ambitious target of ending new HIV transmissions in England by 2030. Thankfully, Aids is no longer a death sentence and new HIV transmissions are easily preventable. The opportunity to end HIV is within our reach but with the government proposing significant cuts for the international HIV response, we risk undoing all of our hard work and missing this important target.
Whilst we’re seeing huge progress in tackling HIV in the UK, even before covid, the global HIV response was in a very precarious position. Aids remains the leading cause of death for women of a reproductive age and new HIV infections are becoming concentrated amongst marginalised communities, like LGBT+ people. We’re now seeing the HIV response being put under incredible strain by covid. Some estimate it could roll back progress by a decade. But whilst other governments are stepping up in the HIV response, I fear the UK is stepping away.
By looking to reduce the aid budget by a third, the government is proposing significant cuts for the HIV response. This includes cutting their funding to UNAIDS from £15 million a year down to just £2 million a year. A cut of more than 80%. This mirrors drastic cuts across the board for HIV civil society organisations doing critical work in the HIV response.
Next month’s UN high level meeting on HIV and Aids gives world leaders an opportunity to get the HIV response back on track. Cutting the aid budget by a third not only undermines our own priorities but puts our reputation as a development superpower at grave risk. The UK is the only G7 member to reduce aid spending, despite all governments facing the impact of covid and the global recession.
Medical Defence Union (MDU)
National Office of Animal Health (NOAH)
Whether it’s supporting some of the most marginalised people, educating and empowering girls, or supporting countries in ending Aids, UNAIDS plays a critical role and must be supported. UNAIDS scores ‘A’ in the government’s own internal performance reviews but is still having its funding slashed.
Even within the framework of the UK’s decision to reduce aid, this runs counter to the country’s own objectives. The UK set out 2021 as a key year for galvanising global action on health security, tackling the pandemic and girls’ education.
The new UNAIDS strategy, which the UK government strongly endorsed only a month before cuts were announced, aligns closely with the government’s own development priorities. The UK has announced it will be rightly focused on global health security, girls education, science and innovation, and human rights – that’s what UNAIDS delivers. The UK is focused on sub-Saharan Africa and Indo-Pacific. So is UNAIDS.
As the government makes difficult decisions on how to spend aid, investments that are small but have a large catalytic impact are particularly important. This is what UNAIDS does. UNAIDS’ impact is so huge because it is catalytic – UNAIDS ensures countries’ HIV funding is well spent, develops best practice and helps countries reform laws that stand in the way of beating Aids. Investing just £15 million a year into UNAIDS is a relatively small amount of money but can have a truly transformational impact.
If the UK takes its eye off the ball and cuts HIV funding, it is likely to bounce-back and reverse decades of progress that UK aid has made possible. This will come with a very heavy human and financial toll. These cuts also risk jeopardising the UK’s own domestic prevention efforts. As we’ve learnt from covid, pandemics don’t respect borders. If we can’t control HIV globally, it’ll jeopardise our efforts to reach the government’s vital target of ending new HIV infections in England by 2030.
I am encouraged that next month the government will send ministerial representation to the UN high level meeting on HIV. World leaders must use this meeting to get the fight to end Aids back on track. To safeguard the HIV response both at home and abroad, I urge the prime minister to continue our proud position as a leader in the global HIV response through urgently returning to 0.7% aid spending target and protect vital HIV funding.