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Voices: Boris Johnson has a dangerous disregard for the facts over efforts to vaccinate the world

Not for the first time, Boris Johnson has shown a casual disregard for the facts. But this time his erroneous claims and a longer-term failure to speed up the delivery of unused Covid-19 vaccines to Africa is risking many lives.

Early tomorrow morning Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, our well-respected chief medical and scientific officers, should sit Johnson down and acquaint him with some basic medical facts. First, they should demand that he retracts mistaken statements made at Saturday evening’s press conference – that the spread of Omicron in Africa has more to do with vaccine hesitancy and take-up than vaccine supply and the assertion that the UK has been "leading" the effort to vaccinate the world. Second, they should make clear that in all our interests he changes course in the way he is treating Africa. A failure to do so will not just put this Christmas at risk but may leave us facing similar problems at Christmas 2022.

This weekend Britain had to add Mozambique, Angola Malawi and Zambia alongside South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe, to the red list of countries where travel to and from Britain is banned. Mozambique, where 89 per cent remain unvaccinated, is crying out for vaccines to protect its people against Covid-19. So too is Angola, where 92 per cent have not even had their first dose, and Zambia and Malawi where 97 per cent of the population remain unvaccinated and even many health workers – risking their lives daily to save lives –are unprotected.

Fearing what they call “upcoming new waves of Covid-19 infections,” the highly respected African Disease and Control Centre has made an urgent plea for countries to accelerate immunisation “to prevent severe cases and deaths.” And in contrast to Johnson’s claims, the Africa Union’s Vaccine Delivery Alliance co-chair. Ayoade Alaki says: “What is going on right now is inevitable, it's a result of the world's failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent and speedy manner… It is as a result of vaccine hoarding by high-income countries of the world, and quite frankly it is unacceptable." Or as Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, puts it: “The world should provide support to South Africa and Africa and not discriminate or isolate it.”

Yes, there is resistance everywhere in the world from a minority of anti-vaxxers to getting jabs into people's arms. But of the two countries now in the front line, Botswana has already administered 86 per cent of its supply and South Africa 78 per cent – a far higher figure for the usage of available doses than in Britain, Europe or America where there are so many unused vaccines that Airfinity-the expert data research agency, expects that by Christmas 100m will be destroyed as they pass their “use by” dates.

The biggest problem is not the reluctance of people in Africa to be vaccinated but the failure of the west to honour our promise to supply the doses. Johnson's claim that the British government has been more generous than anyone else in gifting doses falls apart when subject to scrutiny. Under his chairmanship, the G7 countries meeting in Cornwall in June promised to vaccinate the whole world but they are failing to deliver.

The west's first broken promise was the pledge to vaccinate 10 per cent of the 92 poorest countries by September. This would have immunised all health workers and vulnerable people - but 82 of the world’s poorest countries were denied the vaccines to enable them to meet the target. The second broken promise made at a summit held by President Joe Biden in September - was to vaccinate 40 per cent by December. In fact, just three per cent of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated and only seven per cent of the population of Africa compared with 67.3 per cent in high income countries.

And there is a good reason why the divide between the vaccine "haves" and the vaccine "have-nots" mirrors the already entrenched divide between global rich and global poor. Of 9.1 billion doses produced so far around , 85 per cent have been monopolised the richest G20 countries. Even today when Africa’s need is clearly greatest, 71 per cent of the contracts for vaccine supplies are controlled by the G20 countries. As of 26 November, 7.9bn of the doses had been administered but less than one per cent – only 1 in 160 – of the vaccines have gone to low-income countries, and only 3 per cent – 1 in every 32 – to Africa despite its population of 1.3bn.

The British government lags on donations. While America promised to donate one billion doses and Europe 550m to the poorest parts of the world, we have promised only 100 million doses. It’s a serious enough failure when even America has delivered only 25 per cent of its promised tally, and the European Union only 19 per cent. Indeed, only 11 per cent of Britain's promised donation has been delivered, leaving all of us at risk when – through no fault of their own – a number of countries have become spaces for outbreaks of new variants of the virus .

The shortage of vaccines is reflected too in the shortage of tests. If we are to detect the disease and its new variants we need to increase our ability to test worldwide. Four billion tests have been administered in the last year and a half but only 70m of these in Africa; as a result, only a fraction of those potentially carrying the disease in Africa are even identified.

“It’s not too late to change this SOS,” writes Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at University of the Witwatersrand, about the need for vaccinations now. There is no time to hold back; 500m vaccines now stockpiled in the west could be sent out almost immediately.

By December the figure could be 600m and, having recognised his misleading statements, Johnson should tell us that instead of lagging behind, Britain will now actually lead the way. This is not just about Africa.

Many lives and livelihoods depend on this. It is not just no one is safe anywhere until everyone is safe everywhere. It is also that all of us will live in fear until no one lives in fear.

Gordon Brown is the World Health Organisation ambassador for global health financing and was UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010