corona marginalia: “Operation Last Gasp”

It is ten days since the UK government took its first steps to tackle the shortage of NHS ventilators, when Boris Johnson, along with Michael Gove, “joined a conference call with more than 60 manufacturing businesses to rally them in a national effort to produce more equipment.”

Politico reported at that time that the government’s aim was to have the necessary ventilators “on stream” within two weeks. We also learned that Johnson had joked about how this request to build more life-saving ventilators might be remembered as “Operation Last Gasp.” 1

Yesterday another reason behind the government’s delay in the procurement of essential medical equipment was revealed by the Guardian, when it reported (initially at least):

Downing Street has declined to take part in an EU scheme to source life-saving ventilators to treat coronavirus because the UK is “no longer a member” and is “making our own efforts”.

Critics accused Boris Johnson of putting “Brexit over breathing” after No 10 said it did not need to participate in the EU effort to procure equipment to fight coronavirus.

The EU has said it is open to the UK taking part in the programme, which seeks to use its bulk-buying power to get new ventilators at the best price.

The UK has instead chosen to source ventilators from British manufacturers who have never made the products before, ordering 10,000 machines from the household appliance firm Dyson.

Asked why the UK was not taking part, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We are no longer members of the EU.” He also stressed that the UK was “making our own efforts” in this area. 2

However, this Guardian article was quickly reedited, and replaced with a different version that retains the same URL whilst providing (as of writing) no notification of any update.

According to the revised account, the government’s failure to cooperate with the EU scheme had never been a policy decision, but was simply “a mix-up” over an email and that the government “would consider participating in future”:

Downing Street has claimed it failed to take part in an EU scheme to source life-saving ventilators to treat coronavirus because it accidentally missed the deadline.

No 10 initially said it did not take part because the UK was “no longer a member” and was “making our own efforts”.

But after critics accused Boris Johnson of putting “Brexit over breathing”, a No 10 spokesman clarified that it had missed out because of an error and would consider participating in future. It is understood the UK claims not to have received an email from the EU asking it to participate.

The mix-up means the UK has missed out on benefiting from the collective buying power of the EU. The bloc is seeking to use its clout to source large numbers of ventilators and protective equipment.

A UK government spokesperson said: “Owing to an initial communication problem, the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join in four joint procurements in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“As the commission has confirmed, we are eligible to participate in joint procurements during the transition period, following our departure from the EU earlier this year.

“As those four initial procurement schemes had already gone out to tender, we were unable to take part in these, but we will consider participating in future procurement schemes on the basis of public health requirements at the time.” 3

Click here to read the revised Guardian article freshly titled “No 10 claims it missed deadline for EU ventilator scheme”.


Update: Proof that the government lied

Shortly after posting this it came to my attention that Health Secretary Matt Hancock had already confessed to knowing about the EU ventilator scheme because he drew attention to it on last week’s BBC1 Question Time (March 19th). So it wasn’t “a mix-up” after all – that was just fake news:


Further evidence has since come to light “that heap doubt on government claims of missing an email” in a subsequent Guardian article published on March 30th:

EU minutes seen by the Guardian show that a British official joined eight out of 12 EU health security committee meetings dedicated to the Covid-19 outbreak since the group was set up earlier this year, shortly before China’s Hubei province was put into lockdown.

At least four of those meetings discussed EU procurement schemes on: 31 January, 4 February, 2 March and 13 March.

While the government marked Brexit day on 31 January, a British representative joined EU member states and commission officials to discuss what was then called “the cluster of pneumonia cases associated with novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China”.

At this meeting, four EU member states said the virus could require increased stocks in Europe of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks and goggles, and the commission said it was ready to help if asked.

The EU executive stated it was ready to help countries bulk-buy medical equipment on 4 February. By 2 March, officials at the commission’s health department reported that 20 EU countries wanted to join a procurement scheme for personal protective equipment, such as overalls, gloves and face-shields. Later that month, on 13 March, EU officials discussed the combined purchase of ventilators.

Peter Liese, a German MEP and medical doctor who sits on the European parliament’s public health committee, said there had also been telephone calls between British and EU officials about the EU procurement scheme. “I know that they [British officials] were at a working level interested in joint procurement,” he told the Guardian.

The veteran German MEP dismissed UK government claims they missed an email. “It was not that they were not aware, but it was a decision not to participate,” he said. “If you are interested you don’t wait for an email.”

Click here to read the full Guardian article entitled “UK discussed joint EU plan to buy Covid-19 medical supplies, say officials” written by Jennifer Rankin, published on March 30th.


1 From an article entitled “POLITICO London Playbook: The age of corona – Rishi leads the fightback – Commons rule change” written by Jack Blanchard, published in Politico on March 17, 2020.

2 From an article entitled “No 10 accused of putting ‘Brexit over breathing’ in Covid-19 ventilator row” written by Rowena Mason and Lisa O’Carroll, published in the Guardian on March 26, 2020 (10:31 EDT)

3 From an article entitled “No 10 claims it missed deadline for EU ventilator scheme” written by Rowena Mason and Lisa O’Carroll, published in the Guardian on March 26, 2020 (18.25 GMT)


Filed under Britain

7 responses to “corona marginalia: “Operation Last Gasp”

    • Hi Tish. I am feeling quite a lot better thanks. Very tired but definitely feel like I’m finally on the road to recovery (it’s been about 18 days by the way).

      On the subject of the seriousness of this disease I think my own first estimates were pretty good considering (so please forgive me for blowing my own trumpet a little). I have never believed the case-fatality rate was likely to be greater than about 0.7% (a figure established by the widespread testing carried out in S Korea) and have always presumed that the vast majority of cases are relatively mild or even asymptomatic. I also observed how a high percentage of confirmed cases (perhaps 5-10%) seem to become critically ill and how the infectiousness of Covid-19 also appears to be significantly higher than for flu for instance – comparisons with flu can be misleading in any case. But it is these unusual factors that seem to combine to produce the terrible “tsunamis” of patients (questionable choice of word I think given the alleged origins and some of the attached racism) that overwhelm our hospitals.

      Overall, I am rather suspicious of modelling generally (as you might imagine) whether the estimates are high or low. Testing is what we need, of course, because science is always finally about data. As the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman once said “if it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science.” By ‘experiment’ he also means observation and data, of course:

      Thanks for the links and for the excuse to share one of my favourite clips of Richard Feynman too!

      Liked by 1 person

      • So glad to hear you’re getting better. And thank you for the Richard Feynman clip. Can’t have too much of wise humans. I think the antibody test should hopefully throw some light on matters.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely. When we have that, we can finally get some reliable data. It will also be useful to know who has acquired immunity.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Imperial have reduced the mortality prediction to under 6,000 this morning…


      • Pulmonary specialist Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg has some interesting contrarian views – Mostly in German but an English summary towards the bottom of his page:

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Tish, I’m not really persuaded to be honest, at least with respect to the severity of Covid-19.

        Yes, I can see that there has been a great deal of media hysteria (especially over panic-buying) and it does concern me that this crisis can be used to clampdown on civil rights and to transfer wealth to the billionaire class again (as Trump just did). I’m just in the process of putting together an article together to address concerns over the first issue in fact.

        But I think the need for emergency hospitals speaks for itself – if this was just like flu then why is the government getting ready for 1000s of extra patients needing ICU treatment? Of course, if these new hospitals remain empty then I shall have to admit I was wrong. Happily so, if it turns out to be the case.

        Incidentally, I just came across this interview with Professor Kim Woo-joo from Korea University Guro Hospital which looks worthwhile:

        Thanks for the comment and the link – always appreciated.

        Liked by 2 people

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