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Coronavirus: Boris Johnson blames administrative error for failure to sign up to EU equipment help scheme

EU countries are banding together to buy equipment in bulk to get priority

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Thursday 26 March 2020 19:19 GMT
How the government has responded to coronavirus

Downing Street has blamed an administrative error for the UK’s failure to sign up to an emergency EU scheme to help procure vital medical equipment to fight coronavirus.

After an outcry about the refusal to take part in the programme, a government spokesperson claimed that “initial communication problems” meant the UK was confused about whether it could take part.

The claim from No.10 comes despite EU officials being clear in public from early on that the UK could be involved, with a spokesperson stating on 19 March that Britain was “eligible to participate” because it was in the Brexit transition period and is thus being treated like a member state.

Critics accused Boris Johnson of taking an ideological stand against participating in the EU scheme, a charge which No.10 denies.

Earlier on Thursday the prime minister’s official spokesperson appeared sanguine about the UK’s lack of participation, telling reporters when questioned: “We are no longer members of the EU. We are doing our own work on ventilators and we have had a very strong response from business. We have sourced ventilators form the private sector and international manufacturers.”

But after mounting criticism of the PM and calls to join the EU scheme, a spokesperson appeared to change the government’s story. He said the UK would consider joining future schemes.

The programme, initiated by the European Commission, uses the bulk-buying power of the 500 million person single market to get priority for ventilators and protective equipment – which doctors have warned are in short supply in the UK amid a time of extreme global demand.

The first tranche of orders, which will go to 25 of the 27 member states, covers “masks type 2 and 3, gloves, goggles, face-shields, surgical masks and overalls” – all of which are needed in the UK.

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.

“We are working round the clock with industry, the NHS, social care providers and the army to ensure the supply of PPE over the coming weeks and months and will give our NHS and the social care sector everything they need to tackle this outbreak.”

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said: “Given the huge need for PPE, testing capacity and crucial medical equipment including ventilators, people will want to know why on Monday ministers were saying they ‘chosen other routes’ over joint EU procurement initiatives but now they are claiming that they missed the relevant emails. We need an urgent explanation from ministers about how they will get crucial supplies to the frontline as a matter of urgency.”

Layla Moran, Lib Dem MP told The Independent: “It is almost unbelievable that this was an email ‘mix-up.’ I’ll be checking to see that the Government has now contacted the EU to declare its willingness to opt in, to clear up the matter once and for all. I look forward to seeing the UK opt-in to this and similar schemes.”

Commenting on the first order of the EU scheme, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “All over the world, there’s right now a tremendous need for protective clothing and medical equipment. It is therefore a success that the Joint European Procurement Initiative has been able to secure on the world market concrete offers of considerable scale on shortest notice.

“This is EU solidarity in action. It shows that being part of the Union pays off. This material should soon provide considerable relief in Italy, Spain and in 23 more member states.”

A government spokesperson said: “Of course, our top priority as a Government is to slow the spread of the coronavirus, protect the NHS and keep people safe.

“We remain committed to negotiating a comprehensive free trade agreement with the US in line with our manifesto commitment to have 80 per cent of UK trade covered by free trade agreements within the next three years.

“This is why we are looking at options to conduct trade negotiations in a way that respects the public health advice as set out by the Prime Minister and Public Health England.

“In parallel, UK-EU negotiations are ongoing. Last week we exchanged draft legal texts and informal discussions with the Commission continue. The transition period ends on 31 December 2020, as enshrined in UK law.

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