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The global HIV response cannot afford for the UK to step back now


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By making such significant cuts at this crucial time for the HIV response, we’re jeopardizing efforts to achieve the UN’s targets and are leaving marginalised communities behind.

Whilst other UN members are stepping up their commitments to the HIV response and the devastating impact caused by Covid-19, I am concerned that the UK is stepping away. By cutting the aid budget by a third, we risk jeopardising decades of hard-won progress in the fight to end AIDS.

To mark the start of the UN General Assembly, the APPG on HIV, STOPAIDS and Frontline AIDS have released a report that highlights the devastating impact that the cuts are having on the HIV response.

We conducted this inquiry over the summer and the report’s findings are indeed sobering. This year the UK has cut funding to key agencies like UNAIDS, Unitaid and UNFPA by over 80 per cent respectively; cut global health research and development (R&D) spending in half; and effectively wiped out what remained of the UK’s bilateral funding going directly to HIV civil society and community-led organisations.

These cuts create the perfect storm for a resurgence of HIV transmissions and AIDS related deaths

From reduced access to contraceptives to driving more people into poverty – the report explores how these cuts create the perfect storm for a resurgence of HIV transmissions and AIDS related deaths. These cuts will undoubtedly affect the international community’s ability to realise the UN’s HIV targets and advance UK development priorities, including pandemic preparedness, health system strengthening and ending preventable deaths.

What’s more, the ODA cuts also directly contradict the UK government’s ambition to become a “science superpower” with R&D funding for global health and HIV drastically reducing. With more than 4,000 people still becoming infected with HIV every day, and nearly 2,000 dying every day from AIDS-related illnesses, HIV and AIDS R&D is clearly an area where more rapid progress is desperately needed.

I am proud of the UK’s history as a global leader in the HIV response and have seen directly how UK Aid funded projects have transformed HIV treatment and prevention efforts. We have been beginning to see huge progress in the UK in reaching the domestic target of no new HIV transmissions, and this important target could be within reach for the rest of the world too.

The global HIV response cannot afford for the UK to step back now from its critical leadership role, particularly under the incredible strain from the Covid-19 pandemic, which looks set to roll back a decade of progress.

Earlier this month I chaired a meeting between UK parliamentarians and Winnie Byanyima who leads the UN’s work on HIV. This year UNAIDS rallied world leaders to adopt the “Political Declaration” which proposes bold action to get the HIV response back on track. I was encouraged that the UK government pushed for a strong Declaration and stood up for the rights of marginalised communities at the UN High Level Meeting on HIV.

But unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between their words and actions. By making such significant cuts at such a crucial time for the HIV response, we’re jeopardizing efforts to achieve the UN’s targets and are leaving marginalised communities behind.

Our report highlights that it is not too late to get the HIV response back on track and advance – not jeopardise – the UK government’s development priorities. The new Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, has the opportunity to get the response back on track. Some of her predecessors have shown what UK leadership can achieve for the HIV response. I hope she’ll step up to the mantle, countless lives are depending on it.

Top of her agenda should be working with her government colleague to ensure that the upcoming Spending Review saves lives. Our report makes the case for why the UK government should allocate supplementary funds to bilateral and multilateral organisations working on the HIV response who have had their funding cut, and to increase funding for global health R&D.

At this time of global health crisis, the only moral and rational step is for the UK government to lead by example. This means maintaining UK leadership in the global HIV response politically and financially and returning to the global commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on overseas development assistance as quickly as possible.

Renewed leadership from the UK government will help us regain lost ground caused by Covid-19 and get efforts to end AIDS back on track.

 

Baroness Barker is a Liberal Democrat peer. 

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