The UK aid response to COVID-19

This review examines the prioritisation and redirection of UK aid in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. Status: Completed
  2. Published: 21 October 2021
  3. Type: Rapid review
  4. Subject: Government processes and systems
  5. Location: Pakistan, Sudan, Zambia
  6. Lead commissioner: Sir Hugh Bayley

Read the review


We made three recommendations to government following this rapid review, finding that the UK’s initial aid-funded response was strong, but more recently COVID-related assistance has been undermined by reductions to the UK’s aid budget.


  • The UK government set clear objectives for its international COVID-19 response
  • The UK government took early action to inform itself and others on emerging risks and vulnerabilities for developing countries
  • Early decisions on reprioritising aid were well informed by the data and analysis available
  • The value for money risk of reducing support for long-term development while responding to COVID-19 was flagged
  • From November 2020 onwards reprioritisation decisions did not always reflect the evidence available to government
  • Cross-UK government structures established before the pandemic helped with coordination of the response
  • The mandatory drawdown of staff from country posts hampered the UK aid response to the pandemic
  • The UK aid response benefited from past investments in preparedness for global health threats
  • Efficiency was enhanced by a robust approach to risk management
  • Unearmarked funding through multilateral channels enhanced efficiency
  • The management response was rapid, but at times almost overwhelmed by the challenge
  • The pandemic response made good use of existing partnerships
  • Delegated spending authority facilitated a flexible response, but declined over time because ODA funding reductions let to centralised decision making
  • The UK made an important contribution to developing vaccines, but delivery has been beset by delays
  • It is not yet clear how much of the UK’s global support for COVID-19 may qualify as ODA
  • Changes to programmes following the reduction of the UK aid spending target to 0.5% of GNI have had a significant effect on the UK aid response to COVID-19


  1. Building on its investments in vaccine development, the UK government should now do more to accelerate the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries and support their equitable rollout to vulnerable populations.
  2. FCDO should delegate as much operational discretion as possible to specialist staff close to the point of programme delivery to ensure the UK’s COVID-19 response is nimble, adaptable and fully informed by the local operating context.
  3. FCDO should review and adapt its drawdown strategy to be more clearly differentiated by risk and individual staff preferences to guide repatriation of staff to home countries during future crises.


Read the news story



Published 5 May 2021

Evidence gathering


Review publication

Published 21 October 2021

Government response

Expected December 2021

ICAI follow-up

Details to be confirmed

Further scrutiny

Details to be confirmed