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Andrew Mitchell: Coronavirus isn’t the only killer

Andrew Mitchell was International Development Secretary from 2010 to 2012. He is the MP for Sutton Coldfield.

Ebola is back in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While we in Britain continue to wrestle with a novel deadly disease, we can be thankful for the small mercy that we are protected from others. During the ebola outbreak that ravaged West Africa, it was a tragic fact that more people died of malaria because of the disruption to medical supplies and the collapse of health systems. In Britain, our NHS has withstood the coronavirus crisis, despite the tragic death of tens of thousands. Again, it is but a small mercy but one for which we should be forever thankful.

Although these are unprecedented times, Britain is used to withstanding crises. The Government in which I served, came into office to deal with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, a major global crisis not of Britain’s making. It was one that defined our entire political project in a way that had not been the case for any government in decades.

That economic challenge is now dwarfed by the task faced by the current administration. Boris Johnson expected to be remembered as the Brexit Prime Minister, but it seems likely that the virus will shape his premiership at least as much as our departure from the European Union. As the world’s superpowers turn inward upon themselves, there has never been a moment in which Global Britain is more greatly required.

Given the enormity of the task on the home front, it would not be unreasonable for other balls to be dropped and commitments to be side-lined. So it is to Boris Johnson’s credit that the Government remains committed to upholding critical priorities in the field of international development, while resolutely getting on with the day job. As he told Parliament’s Liaison Committee only last week, we remain committed to fulfilling all of our manifesto commitments.

The Vaccine Summit this week is a powerful example. The importance of vaccines has become starkly apparent as British scientists race to develop one. As well as our world leading expertise, the UK has stepped up to lead international donors in funding global research. Yet the government has not allowed this to derail its pre-existing commitment to fund vaccines for preventable diseases, like polio, measles, and even ebola. The UK’s role in hosting the Vaccine Summit, as well as its financial pledge, has sent a clear message around the world.

Other causes of death are being supplemented by coronavirus, not replaced by it. A child dies every 20 seconds from a disease that they could have been vaccinated against, and the current crisis does not reduce the urgency of changing this story. But we have a track record of which we can be proud. The global vaccine alliance, with Britain as the leading player, has immunised 760 million children and halved child mortality in 73 developing countries.

It is a source of pride for me that the manifesto commitment on which I and my Conservative colleagues were elected in December, to help end preventable child and maternal deaths by 2030, is not being abandoned in the face of other challenges.

There is an immense amount of work to do, yes firstly at home, but also in support of the poorest countries, to build back from the destruction that this pandemic is causing. But doing so will require us to maintain those things that we held to be important before, not abandon them.

Yemen remains home to the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, and reports this week suggest that a further 5.5 million people in the country are at risk of losing access to food and water. British leadership will be critical to securing the peace that brings these people lasting respite, but in the meantime a new aid pledge announced this week is a welcome sign that the Government remains committed to assisting those whose country has been torn apart by war. These things are not going away, and the Department for International Development, in seeking to tackle them alongside responding to the pandemic, is a credit to our country.

We must retain our resolve. We cannot focus only on the direct effects of the virus, but must respond to it in the context of the other challenges that we face ourselves, but also help others to overcome. The Government has been farsighted in holding its course to confront some of the world’s most pressing challenges, and for that they deserve much credit.


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