The World Health Organisation is urging the UK to pause its vaccination programme once vulnerable groups have received their jabs to help ensure the global rollout is fair.
WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said she wanted to appeal to people in the UK, telling them “you can wait”, because ensuring equitable global distribution is “clearly morally the right thing to do”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he aims to offer all UK adults a first dose by autumn, but the WHO has said countries should be aiming for “two billion doses” to be “fairly distributed” around the world by the end of 2021.
This comes amid the ongoing row between AstraZeneca and the European Union over shortfalls in vaccine delivery to the bloc, with the EU backing down on its threat to override part of the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland on Friday after widespread condemnation of the move as part of its export controls on vaccines.
The UK currently has one of the highest levels of vaccine coverage, along with Israel and the UAE, but many poorer countries are yet to start any immunisations.
When asked to clarify whether, once the UK has vaccinated its top nine priority groups, it should help efforts elsewhere instead of continuing with less vulnerable members of the population, Ms Harris told BBC Breakfast on Saturday: “We’re asking all countries in those circumstances to do that: ‘hang on, wait for those other groups’.
“We’ll also appeal to all the people of the UK – you can wait.”
“We’re asking countries, once you’ve got those [high risk and health care worker] groups, please ensure that the supply you’ve got access to is provided for others,” she added.
“While that is morally clearly the right thing to do, it’s also economically the right thing to do.
“There have been a number of very interesting analyses showing that just vaccinating your own country and then sitting there and saying ‘we’re fine’ will not work economically.
“That phrase ‘no man is an island’ applies economically as well.
“We in the world, we’re so connected and unless we get all societies working effectively once again, every society will be financially effected.”
WHO directors have previously said that vaccine nationalism could cost high-income countries $4.5 trillion.
This is almost half of an estimated $9.2 trillion hit to the global economy, according to a report commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce Research Foundation.
WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has repeatedly called for equitable distribution of vaccines and warned that a “me first” approach would prolong the pandemic, as well as human and economic suffering.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), has also warned that vaccinating “a lot of people in a few countries, leaving the virus unchecked in large parts of the world, will lead to more variants emerging”.
He also said countries with existing vaccine supply deals could donate a percentage of doses to the WHO’s Covax global vaccine-sharing fund “without taking away from the national effort to protect the most vulnerable in society and healthcare workers”.
Earlier this month, it was revealed the UK has helped raise more than £730m for the Covax Advance Market Commitment, including £548m in UK aid to help distribute 1.3 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines to 92 developing countries this year.
In mid-January, the United Nations chief secretary general Antonio Guterres also said in a video message that governments have a responsibility to protect their people, “but ‘vaccinationalism’ is self-defeating and will delay a global recovery”.
“Science is succeeding, but solidarity is failing,” he warned.
“Vaccines are reaching high-income countries quickly, while the world’s poorest have none at all.”
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