Stephen Crabb is Member of Parliament for Preseli Pembrokeshire.
As the world continues to battle Coronavirus, the UK’s leadership in global health has never been more important. Investment in strengthening health systems, developing vaccines, and preventing global disease saves hundreds of thousands of lives every year and helps build the very infrastructure that will protect us all from future pandemics.
Cutting back our overseas aid at this time of global crisis raises questions about our ability to maintain these crucial programmes at their current scale. Not just in terms of our obligations to the most vulnerable in the world, but also in terms of our fundamental duty to protect our own citizens at home.
And we know that investing in global disease prevention has the firm backing of the British public. According to recent polling by YouGov, over half of the British public said they are now more aware of the importance of preventing global disease than they were last year and 82 per cent now think the UK should play a role. Furthermore, 88 per cent see this investment is important for the UK’s security, and this figure was even higher among Conservative voters at 91 per cent.
The UK has a strong track record in fighting global disease under successive Conservative governments. Take malaria for example: over the past decade, British political leadership, investment, and world-leading scientific research have been at the forefront of the global efforts which have seen a 60 per cent reduction in deaths since 2000, and seven million lives saved. The investments in tackling malaria have been incredibly cost effective, too, delivering £36 in economic and social benefits for every £1 spent.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a clear reminder of the fragility of progress against malaria, and the potential for the disease to surge in times of crisis. While many countries, governments and partners are showing incredible commitment, acting quickly, efficiently, and safely to move ahead with essential anti-malaria programmes, the full impact of Covid-19 on malaria responses may not be known for some time and cases and deaths are expected to rise.
Yet the current pandemic has also highlighted how tackling diseases like Covid-19 and malaria, and strengthening the resilience of frontline health services, go hand-in-hand. So much of the infrastructure needed to tackle malaria is the same as that needed to tackle Covid-19 and prevent future pandemics. Things like investing in data and surveillance systems that can provide early warnings and direct help to where it’s needed as fast as possible, and in supporting health workers who can diagnose and treat diseases accordingly.
In recent weeks we have also seen the importance of British science in the race to beat deadly diseases, with promising news about a new Covid-19 vaccine. Pioneering British science is also pushing the boundaries of knowledge to deliver practical solutions to help tackle malaria – from the development of life saving mosquito control tools supported by the Innovative Vector Control Consortium in Liverpool, to British companies like GSK which are leaders in development of a malaria vaccine. Again, this is an area where public support is very strong – with 79 per cent of people agreeing that the UK should invest in science and innovation to combat malaria specifically.
By continuing to channel not only British aid, but also British science, innovation, and technology to tackle diseases such as malaria, this government can proudly deliver on its 2019 manifesto pledges to end the preventable deaths of mothers, new-born babies and children by 2030 and lead the way in eradicating malaria – helping to save millions of children’s lives and countries to be much stronger in the face of future threats, for the benefit of us all.
That is why it is crucial that we do not step back from our international commitments now. We have a moral duty to the world’s vulnerable and a fundamental duty to protect our citizens at home. For both reasons, the UK must maintain its current financial commitments to tackling global diseases like malaria for the years to come, as a central pillar of British efforts to bolster future pandemic preparedness.
As we look ahead to next year, the UK-hosted G7 Summit and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda present key opportunities for our government to use its diplomatic muscle to encourage other countries to take action to improve their defences against future diseases, and continue the fight against existing ones. But being able to do so must be contingent on leading by our own example of maintaining our commitments in this vital field.