- Select committee linked scale of the crisis to international funding cuts
- Blamed ministers and aid agencies for switching to ‘higher-profile’ places
- International Development Secretary Justine Greening insists UK is acting
- Summit is being held in London to discuss how to contain spread of virus
Matt Chorley, Political Editor for MailOnline
A committee of MPs is under fire after claiming cuts in Britain’s spending on international aid could have contributed to the spread of the Ebola virus.
Ministers were accused by the international development committee of undermining £20 million of previous UK-funded work in Liberia by failing to help prevent the government there holding back EU-channelled aid from the health sector.
But government sources dismissed the idea Britain was to blame for the spread of the deadly disease as ‘factually wrong’.
Health workers tackle the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, with figures showing more than 3,000 people in west Africa have been killed
Experts have warned that the outbreak in West Africa has developed at an unprecedented scale with the current rate of infection standing at 1.7, meaning that for every 10 people that contract the virus a further 17 will be infected.
A summit on how to tackle the spread of the virus is being held in London today.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Development Secretary Justine Greening and Ernest Bai Koroma, the president of Sierra Leone, are among those taking part in the global event at Lancaster House in central London.
The UK Government has promised a further £20 million aid to pay for vital medical supplies including chlorine, personal protection equipment such as masks, protection suits and gloves, and essential water and sanitation facilities.
It will also be used to deploy clinicians, global health experts, epidemiologists and infection control advisers from Public Health England, King’s Health Partners and the United Nations.
But the Commons international development committee said that while that was a welcome move, far wider action was needed to reverse a failure to prioritise Sierra Leone and Liberia.
In a scathing report, the parliamentary watchdog said the crisis ‘demonstrates the dangers of ignoring the least developed countries in the world’, accusing ministers and aid agencies of switching focus to ‘higher-profile’ places.
International development secretary Justine Greening insisted the government was acting to help countries affected by the outbreak
The MPs accused the Department for International Development (DfID) and the European Union of doing nothing to deal with the fact that tens of billions of pounds of EU-led health aid was not being passed on by Liberia’s finance ministry.
‘There is an alarming lack of capacity in the health system, including a shortage of skilled clinicians,’ the MPs said, noting that 10 per cent of Sierra Leone’s domestically trained nurses are working in the UK health system.
The committee said it was ‘shocked’ to discover that only 3.9 million US dollars (£2.4 million) of 60 million dollars (£37 million) EU health sector support was passed on by Liberia’s ministry of finance to the ministry of health over a two-year period.
‘Neither the EU nor DfID seemed to be doing anything to resolve the situation. DfID has been working for the last five years on building up the Liberian health system and have spent £20 million doing so.
‘Ministers should be concerned that this work is being undone, not least because DfID provides 16 per cent of its total budget to the EU (£1.23 billion).’
But Miss Greening insisted said Britain was ‘working urgently with Sierra Leone to scale up the international response to the disease’.
‘Last month, Britain pledged to support 700 treatment beds in Sierra Leone, but keeping basic public health services running is vital to halt the spread of the disease.
‘Our latest support will allow stretched medical staff and aid agencies to prevent further infection.’
A government source added: ‘It is just factually wrong to claim that an Ebola outbreak could have been prevented, and factually wrong to suggest Britain is not helping Sierra Leone in its hour of need.’
More than 40 British military personnel and aid experts are working in Sierra Leone following a direct request for assistance from the World Health Organisation and the country’s government.
More than 160 NHS staff are due to travel to Sierra Leone after answering a call for volunteers to help fight the disease earlier this month.
Doctors and scientists are in a race against time to find a medical solution to the epidemic that is spiralling out of control.
Select committee chairman Sir Malcolm Bruce said the scale of the crisis ‘may well be connected to declining levels of international support for health system improvements’ in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
‘In the midst of this devastating epidemic, and at a time when the UK has reached its 0.7% target for overseas development assistance, it is wrong for the UK to cut its support to these two countries by nearly a fifth,’ he said.
‘The planned termination of further UK funding to the Liberian health sector is especially unwise.
‘The UK can be proud of the work DfID has done to help deliver many improvements in Sierra Leone and Liberia following the civil wars in both countries. We believe that this work should continue through bilateral aid programmes.
‘It is also good that in the short time since our report was agreed DfID has provided extra support for Ebola and many NHS staff have volunteered to go to Sierra Leone.
‘However, UK ministers must now work harder to track the use of sector support given to Liberia and Sierra Leone through multilaterals we help fund.’
Experts believe they have a 90-day window to halt the spread of Ebola, which could otherwise have infected around 1.5 million people by January
Experts believe they have a 90-day window to halt the spread of Ebola, which could otherwise have infected around 1.5 million people by January.
The death toll from the highly infectious condition, which has spread across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, has reportedly risen to more than 3,000.
At least 3,700 children have lost one or both parents to the virus since the start of the outbreak, according to preliminary Unicef figures, with fears that this could have doubled by the middle of next month.
Save the Children chief executive Justin Forsyth said: ‘The UK Government has taken the lead on supporting Sierra Leone to tackle this crisis, but it cannot act alone.
‘The scale of the Ebola epidemic is devastating and growing every day, with five people infected every hour in Sierra Leone last week.
‘We need a co-ordinated international response that ensures treatment centres are built and staffed immediately.
‘This is not only an immediate humanitarian threat, but risks completely undoing the hard work which has been done to build up fragile health systems in Sierra Leone and Liberia after the devastating wars of the past few decades. ‘
Share or comment on this article
Share what you think
No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts,
or debate this issue live on our message boards.
Who is this week’s top commenter?
Find out now