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Health Partnership Schemes: Funding

Volume 812: debated on Monday 7 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have reduced funding to health partnership schemes used by United Kingdom clinicians to support doctors and nurses abroad with training in (1) infection control, (2) pandemic management, and (3) the care of COVID-19 patients.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interest as patron of THET, the Tropical Health and Education Trust.

My Lords, UK health professionals have made a substantial contribution to achieving global health goals in developing countries by giving their time voluntarily through health partnership schemes. However, the UK is facing its worst economic contraction in over 300 years and a budget deficit of close to £400 billion. Given the impact of the global pandemic on the economy, the Government have been forced to take tough but necessary decisions, including to close our UK Partnerships for Health Systems programme.

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. As he says, hundreds and maybe thousands of health professionals every year, voluntarily and in their own time, support their colleagues in low and middle-income countries with Covid and in all other kinds of areas. It is good for those countries and good for the NHS, because it provides training and development as well as learning; we learned so much during the Ebola epidemic. For the last 10 years Her Majesty’s Government have supported these schemes in some areas such as transport, and so on. They have been very positive but, as the noble Lord says, they have been cut completely. So I have two specific questions. In February, Her Majesty’s Government agreed or committed themselves to continue to support the partnership scheme in Myanmar, which is dealing with Covid but also the dreadful emergency. Will the Government honour that commitment? Secondly, how will the Government continue to support UK volunteers, who give and gain so much and who are great ambassadors for the UK, given the withdrawal of this scheme?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, I agree that our medical professionals play an incredible role around the world. Certainly, I am keen to explore with the noble Lord and key Ministers, including my colleague Minister Morton, to see how through the contributions we make to health through institutions such as the World Health Organization we can continue to leverage that expertise. On Myanmar specifically, of course with the coup the situation has been extremely difficult. The noble Lord is correct in saying that we are cancelling future activity on this particular programme, but we will fund a round of grants to support voluntary health partnerships working in Myanmar.

Does the Minister recognise the importance of assisting low-income countries to prevent the spread of Covid and to treat the disease? Given the closure of this programme, how will the FCDO ensure that countries can learn from our clinical experience?

My Lords, first, I agree with my noble friend and I assure her that the FCDO and the Government are committed to supporting low-income countries to tackle Covid-19, both to reduce the impact of Covid-19 and because of course we all recognise the importance of vaccines globally. This includes supporting countries to learn from each other as well. I assure my noble friend that we are looking quite specifically at country-by-country programmes, and health support is an essential handrail within our ODA support that we will continue to prioritise.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Her Majesty’s Government provide no medical aid to the middle-belt regions of Nigeria, where thousands have been killed and tens of thousands displaced, and where the people are in dire need of help? Will the proposed reduction in funding destroy any hope of potential funding for life-saving aid where there is such desperate need?

My Lords, as I already indicated, we have had to make extremely challenging and difficult decisions. However, we will be working through multilateral agencies, particularly through enhanced funding of the World Health Organization and our support through Gavi and CEPI and other key programmes, to ensure that the most vulnerable get access to health provision as well as to the vaccine.

My Lords, the Minister has said that he recognises the important role UK clinicians can play in supporting health systems in low-income countries. Does he also recognise how much UK clinicians learn from their experience of working in partnership with others and the benefits this brings to the NHS? They are also excellent ambassadors for global Britain.

My Lords, I concur with the noble Baroness’s view; indeed, I have friends and family who have shared such experiences with me. We will continue to work with the profession to see how best, in difficult situations, we can leverage expertise both ways.

My Lords, can I remind the Minister again that he committed to meet the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, myself and the Peers for Development group? This week and next, the UK is hosting the richest countries in the world at a time of perhaps unprecedented health challenges for the least-developed countries in the world in our lifetime. The last two times that the UK hosted the richest countries, we had on the official record the UK calling on the other G7 members to meet the 0.7% commitment on assistance. Can the Minister be explicit and on the record: is the UK calling on the other G7 countries to meet that 0.7% this time?

My Lords, first, reminders from the noble Lord are always welcome, but a meeting is very much on the schedule and we will make that happen at the earliest opportunity. On his second point, I can put on record our Prime Minister’s and the Government’s commitment to ensuring a global health response to the current pandemic that we are facing. That is why we have led on the important issue of the COVAX Facility, which we will continue to emphasise with our G7 partners.

My Lords, as I said last week, it is the speed and scale of the cuts that are having such a damaging effect. The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, made the point that the cuts impact the most vulnerable countries with fragile health systems: Myanmar, Uganda, Zambia, Ethiopia, Somalia, and, of course, Ghana and Sierra Leone—places where we know the impact of failing health systems on global health. This is also linked to cuts to nutrition projects, which help maintain the efficacy of vaccines—cut by 80%. Will the noble Lord commit to a proper impact assessment of these cuts on the global vaccine programme?

My Lords, as I have already said, the Government remain very much committed to the prioritisation of the health response, particularly when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic. The noble Lord is right to recognise the important role our health programmes play across Africa, but these are challenging circumstances and difficult calls have been made. We are working through the country programmes to see how we can best prioritise health programmes in different countries, particularly those across Africa.

My Lords, why are the Government proposing to reduce funding for the Health Partnership Scheme, which has been one of the big successes of DfID’s increased overseas aid expenditure programme? The HPS has trained over 93,000 health workers across 30 countries, especially in Africa and Asia, 191 partnerships have been formed and 210 projects delivered. If some reduction in planned overseas aid expenditure is necessary, I am sure there are other, less valuable and less affected areas than the HPS.

My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says. But, as I have already indicated, these have been extremely difficult budget rounds. However, I can assure him that we are working with multilateral organisations; indeed, some of the additional funding we are providing through the World Health Organization will focus on global health priorities, including universal health coverage, providing support to professional midwifery, and sexual and reproductive health.

My Lords, I know that the Minister keeps a close eye on Nepal. Are the FCDO and NHS also supporting and encouraging any volunteer health workers in the UK who want to go out to train Nepalese health workers, especially in rural areas where, as we have heard, services are most fragile? The need is quite desperate in places.

My Lords, as the Minister responsible for south Asia, I assure the noble Earl that I have prioritised support to Nepal, particularly on its requirements and prioritisations. We are working very closely with the Nepalese Government in identifying needs. Because of the situation on the ground, it is important to identify the safety of health workers who may be deployed, but we have teams on the ground who are providing first-hand information.

My Lords, the G7 summit taking place in Cornwall this weekend must be the first summit of global leaders in history where the host country is reducing its international commitments at the same time as every other country attending is increasing its international commitments. This is bringing shame and ridicule on our country. It is not too late for the Prime Minister to change tack and say that additional resources for climate, education, global health and the global economic recovery could be delivered with a return to 0.7% of GNI spent on international development. Will the Government change tack this week at the last minute and make this summit a success?

My Lords, I believe that the summit will be a success, because a lot of work has been put into the planning for that. On the specific commitment, the noble Lord will be aware that I cannot make the kind of commitment that he is seeking. However, I will say to him, through my own engagement both in-country and with multilateral organisations, that the United Kingdom, through the over £10 billion we will be spending this year, is still regarded as among the premier countries when it comes to development support.