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Coronavirus: Boris Johnson urged to explain 'ideological' refusal of EU help buying medical equipment

Procurement scheme uses bulk-buying power of 500 million strong single market

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Thursday 26 March 2020 16:22 GMT
The prime minister speaks to the Queen during their weekly audience, 25 March
The prime minister speaks to the Queen during their weekly audience, 25 March (EPA)

Boris Johnson is coming under increasing pressure to explain why he has refused EU help to bulk-purchase medical equipment that Britain desperately needs in the fight against coronavirus.

The prime minister was branded "ideological" and told he should do "whatever it takes" to help patients despite his dislike of the EU – after he ducked out of the procurement scheme.

The programme, set up 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.

Britain was invited to participate in the EU scheme because it is still in the Brexit transition period and being given the advantages of a member state, but turned the offer down.

Downing Street has however offered no coherent explanation for the refusal to join – leading critics to suspect the prime minister's own ideological and political concerns are keeping the UK out.

“The coronavirus pandemic does not recognise borders or ideology, and it is vital that the UK government does not turn its back on collaboration to tackle this virus and to protect our citizens," said Dr Philippa Whitford MP, the SNP’s Brexit spokesperson. She added that "cooperation with our EU neighbours, particularly in sourcing vital supplies, should be welcomed and engaged with – not shunned".

Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary said: "We raised this with ministers in the commons earlier this week and did not receive a satisfactory response.

"With widespread concerns about our ventilator capacity and the urgent need to scale-up that capacity, we should be co-operating through international schemes to ensure we get these desperately need pieces of kit."

Acting Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey added: "There is no reasonable justification for Boris Johnson’s refusal to participate in the EU’s procurement of ventilators. Surely we should be trying every possible means to get people seriously ill with coronavirus the ventilators they need.

"Let's be clear: getting more ventilators to our NHS will save lives. Why won’t the Prime Minister put his Brexit views aside, given this crisis?

A health worker dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) awaits new patients at a drive-thru coronavirus testing station (Getty Images)

"By working together with other countries and using the strength of the single market, the government can help get PPE for NHS frontline staff and ventilators to those fighting the virus.

"Of course we want factories in the UK manufacturing ventilators and let’s source them from abroad where we can, but it looks deeply irresponsible not to work with our European neighbours on this too.”

No.10 has declined to elaborate on why the UK would not participating. Asked why at a regular briefing of journalists in Westminster, the prime minister's spokesperson said: “We are no longer members of the EU." However, the UK has been invited to participate in the scheme because it is in the Brexit transition period.

The PM's spokesperson added: "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 the spokesperson conceded that new orders, such as one placed with vacuum cleaner maker and Brexit supporter James Dyson, were "dependent on machines passing regulatory tests".

The first order placed by the EU, 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. Britain was invited to participate as it is still in the Brexit transition period and so is still being treated like a member state.

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.”

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