UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has said the Covid-19 crisis caused the government to row back on its election promise not to cut foreign aid. Charities and human rights campaigners have argued against the move.

The decision to cut foreign aid to 0.5 percent of GDP in 2021 was among the “tough choices” the government had to make during the coronavirus crisis, Sunak told parliament on Wednesday.

During a domestic fiscal emergency, when we need to prioritise our limited resources on jobs and public services, sticking rigidly to spending 0.7 percent of our national income on overseas aid is difficult to justify to the British people – especially when we’re seeing the highest peacetime levels of borrowing on record.

“Our intention is to return to 0.7 percent when the fiscal situation allows,” Sunak explained. He said that the government will allocate £280 billion ($374 billion) for Covid-19 relief, which includes support for the NHS and spending more money on mass testing, protective gear and vaccines.

Sunak cited data from the Office for Budget Responsibility, which estimated in July that the British economy might not bounce back to its pre-pandemic level until the end of 2022.

The ruling Tory government has been criticised for failing to uphold last year’s campaign promise to continue spending 0.7 percent of GDP on aid overseas. The leaders of 185 British charities and relief groups signed an open letter last week saying that “a U-turn” on this issue would “signal we are a nation willing to balance its books on the backs of the world’s most marginalised people.” 

On Wednesday, Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai tweeted that she hoped the UK would “deliver” on its 0.7 percent promise, tagging Sunak and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

COVID-19 could force 20 million more girls out of school. To keep girls learning, we need leaders to prioritise education. @BorisJohnson & @RishiSunak: the U.K. pledged 0.7% in aid last year. When you announce spending priorities tomorrow, I hope you’ll deliver on that promise.

When asked about the 2019 campaign promise by Sky News’ Sophy Ridge, Sunak said there were “a lot of different ways” in which the UK has “demonstrated leadership and made a difference to some of the world’s poorest countries.”

10/ Today’s Spending Review honours our historic, multi-year commitment to the NHS.Next year, the core @DHSCgovuk budget will grow by £6.6bn, allowing us to deliver 50,000 more nurses and 50 million more general practice appointments.

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