The “devastating impact” of the government’s foreign aid cuts on the global fight against HIV has been laid bare in a new parliamentary report, which highlights how international programmes have been scrapped, research funding lost and millions of lives endangered.
As part of an inquiry led by the All Party Parliamentary Group on HIV and AIDS, experts have warned that the decision to reduce the UK’s overseas aid budget, from 0.7 per cent of national income to 0.5 per cent, could “reverse decades of hard-won progress” that has been made in cutting transmission and death rates across the world.
Targets set by the United Nations to reduce the annual number of new infections to under 370,000 and AIDS-related deaths to 250,000 are also in jeopardy as a result of the UK’s spending cuts, say the authors of the report, which has been shared with The Independent.
Baroness Elizabeth Barker, vice chair of the APPG, warned that the global response to the virus is “teetering” amid a “perfect storm of waning political support, diminishing funds and the global shock of Covid-19”.
“There couldn’t be a worse time for the government to cut so much funding,” she added. “Our report highlights the devastating impact that the cuts are already having and how its jeopardising decades of progress. We must save lives and get the HIV response back on track.”
The Covid pandemic has disrupted global efforts to manage HIV. According to data collected at 502 health facilities in 32 African and Asian countries, HIV testing declined by 41 per cent and referrals for diagnosis and treatment fell by 37 per cent during the first lockdowns in 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.
Despite concern that this disruption risks “setting the stage for a resurgence in HIV,” as the APPG report warns, the UK government pushed ahead in July in reducing its HIV investments as part of a wider £4 billion cut to the overseas aid budget.
Money that was previously available to charity groups, campaigners, research projects, and multilateral aid programmes has all been lost, endangering the lives of millions of HIV-positive people and vulnerable individuals, the APPG said, adding that the UK’s own domestic prevention efforts could be at risk.
“As we’ve clearly learnt from Covid-19, pandemics don’t respect borders,” said Baroness Barker. “If we can’t control HIV globally, it will jeopardise our domestic efforts.”
The likes of UNAIDS, UNFPA and Unitaid - some of the biggest multilateral organisations leading the global fight against HIV - have all lost more than 80 per cent of their funding from the UK.
UNAIDS has said the cut will affect its ability to provide lifesaving HIV prevention and treatment services around the world. The UK is the only member of its committee board to slash funding, the APPG said.
Unitaid said the cuts will “reduce the resources available … to provide end-to-end game-changing solutions that address the multiple challenges facing global health,” and highlighted how proposals for improving TB diagnostics are set to be affected.
“This project is particularly significant for the HIV response given that TB is the leading cause of death among people living with HIV,” said the APPG, which compiled and reviewed evidence alongside STOPAIDS and Frontline AIDS.
Other HIV organisations have also been impacted by the funding reductions. Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) has been forced to end or scale down 45 per cent of its programmes, limiting healthcare access to four million people, including those with HIV.
The charity has also had to exit health work in Sierra Leone and Mozambique, and even in countries where it continues to operate, the UK’s funding cuts mean that VSO can no longer offer the same scope of service it used to.
Similarly, the APPG report said that a Frontline AIDS project, which focused on HIV and sexual health in marginalised and underserved populations, was axed in April as a result of the funding cuts.
Another programme led by the charity on safeguarding against sexual exploitation for LGBTQI+ communities, which suffer disproportionally higher rates of HIV infection, has also been terminated. The FCDO-funded initiative did not continue beyond its initial six-month phase, cutting short work that aimed to support these groups in addressing, reporting and seeking justice against sexual violence.
The report also focuses on shortfalls in R&D spending. In particular, it highlights how there hasn’t been any government investment into the development of a HIV vaccine since 2017, and warned that “the decision to cut the aid budget effectively closes the door to any potential increases in funding in the next few years, even if clinical trials deliver promising results.”
Mike Podmore, director of STOPAIDS, said the evidence submitted to the APPG inquiry “demonstrates clearly the terrible impact that the ODA cuts have made”. He added: “I am really alarmed that the UK government is seemingly willing to jeopardise decades of hard-won progress in the HIV response that UK Aid has been instrumental in delivering.”
The APPG said the UK previously led international efforts in combatting HIV and called upon the government to restore its commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of national income on foreign aid.
“Epidemics magnify our worst traits—inequalities, injustices, and fear; but also, our best traits—ingenuity, resilience, and courage,” said Lord Norman Fowler, former health secretary and vice chair of the APPG.
“Whether our generation will be the people who ended AIDS, or only as the people who could have ended AIDS, is up to us.”