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. https://www.politico.eu/newsletter/london-playbook/politico-london-playbook-the-age-of-corona-rishi-leads-the-fightback-commons-rule-change/
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) https://web.archive.org/web/20200326170654/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/no-10-boris-johnson-accused-of-putting-brexit-over-breathing-in-covid-19-ventilator-row
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) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/no-10-boris-johnson-accused-of-putting-brexit-over-breathing-in-covid-19-ventilator-row