LEICESTER, United Kingdom – England’s top Catholic and Anglican prelates have condemned the UK government’s plan to cut its international development aid budget to save money during the COVID-19 crisis.

In a joint statement to the Evening Standard, a London newspaper, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury said, “Balancing the books during a pandemic on the backs of the world’s poorest is not acceptable.”

Nichols is the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and Welby leads the Church of England and Anglican Communion.

In 2015, a law was passed committing the UK to spend 0.7 percent of its Gross National Income (GNI) on international aid. In November, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would drop this commitment to 0.5 percent, cutting billions from the international aid budget at a time when the poorest countries were dealing with the health and financial fallout of the coronavirus crisis.

The archbishops said Britain “should be setting an example and proving our standing as a world leader.”

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“COVID has taught us many things, of which one of the most important is that we depend on each other around the world. Our freedoms, our safety, our health and that of our families, and of course our faith: these are all very precious. We have each benefited recently from coronavirus vaccinations. How fortunate we are,” they told the Evening Standard. And how much we long for all our sisters and brothers, wherever they are and whatever they believe, to know the same security. The pandemic has reminded us that no one is safe until we are all safe. Our lives are connected.”

Nichols and Welby noted that in the small print of the recent Integrated Review of Defense, Diplomacy and Development was a pledge to return the aid budget to 0.7 percent GNI, but pointing out it came with a caveat.

“[Saying] the Government will only do this “’when the fiscal situation allows’ is deeply worrying, suggesting that it will act in contravention of its legally binding target. This promise, repeatedly made even during the pandemic, has been broken and must be put right,” the archbishops said.

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Save the Children estimates that a 30 percent cut in spending would mean 5.6 million fewer children a year will be immunized, and 105,000 lives a year will not be saved; 940,000 fewer children a year will be supported to gain a decent education; 2 million fewer people a year will be reached with humanitarian assistance; 3.8 million fewer people a year will be supported to gain access to clean water and/or better sanitation.

Aid organizations also highlight the fact the aid budget was already going to be significantly lower without the proposed cuts, since it is tied to GNI, which has falling precipitously due to the pandemic.

“We are already seeing hastily implemented cuts to countries like Yemen, Syria and South Sudan doing real damage to life-saving work. Promises – and truth – matter in politics, as in all walks of life. Real damage has been done. But it is never too late to do the right thing,” the archbishops statement noted.

The archbishops also drew attention to the fact the UK will be hosting the G7 summit in June and the UN climate conference in November, putting it at the center of the world stage.

“[We] must show leadership on the climate crisis and that requires leadership on international development. Keeping our promises to the world’s poorest people would be a good start,” they said.

Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative member of Parliament and the former International Development Secretary, told the Evening Standard he supported the Catholic and Anglican leaders’ call for the Johnson government to “respect the law of the land.”

“Our international reputation for tackling poverty and misery, is now being destroyed as the Government implements unlawful cuts to humanitarian aid – including unconscionably cutting support for women and children during a famine,” he told the newspaper.

“This is the image of Global Britain that we are now allowing to be seen around the world,” Mitchell said.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome