The government regrets to announce that a chance to procure ventilators somehow ended up in Boris Johnson’s spam folder

Still, we are told that the government will consider taking part in ‘future rounds’ now that we’ve missed out on this one

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Sunday 29 March 2020 17:35 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


What are the chances? All those ‘technology lessons’ in that flat with the pole dancing pole in, and still the urgent email from the EU about buying cheap ventilators ends up in Boris Johnson’s spam folder.

The detail we shall come on to shortly, but first there’s the even more unfortunate matter of the timing.

As emergency plans are activated all over the country, turning crematorium car parks and other such places into temporary mortuaries (when your delayed wedding day eventually comes around, do try not to think too hard about what the marquee’s been used for), truly it provides no pleasure to wheel out that old phrase about ‘burying bad news.’

At 5pm, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, strolled out again to face the TV cameras, delivering what, by my count, was his twelfth budget of the last nine days. It is hard not to wonder whether the real news snuck out at 4.57pm.

Not so long ago – less than a fortnight, in fact – though it feels like another geological era, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, was issuing a call to arms to every manufacturer in the UK to start producing ventilators. “If you make one we will buy it,” he said. “No number is too high.”

So there was some confusion over the fact that the UK had chosen not to take part in the EU’s ventilator procurement scheme, to which we had expressly and very publicly been invited, despite having left the EU what feels like several lifetimes ago.

The same old Brexit arguments apply here, which we’ll only trot through briefly. All the world wants ventilators; being part of a big bloc, as opposed to being a small country, increases your bargaining power and makes you more attractive to suppliers as you’ll be ordering in larger quantities, yada yada yada.

Surely we weren’t sitting out of the EU scheme out of sheer Brexiteer bloody-mindedness? Actually, it turns out, no, we weren’t. The reasoning provided (yes, at 4.57pm), is that the government didn’t get the emails.

Yes, that’s it. That’s really it. There’s a mad rush for ventilators, no number is too many, and there’s absolutely no time to lose, but an offer to join a massive ventilator procurement scheme somehow ended up in Boris Johnson’s spam folder or something like that.

Government sources have explained that there is no blame involved, and that it was just a mix-up. Given that it has somehow become generally accepted wisdom that it’s not OK to criticise the government (although we notice that the moment Johnson does something 93 per cent of the public support – namely bringing in a lockdown – is also the moment the Daily Telegraph withdraws its backing for him), we must take this explanation at face value.

It would be churlish to point out that, well, the 27 countries that are still in the EU all got the email, didn’t they?

We are continually told that now’s not the time to say such tiresome things as, well, Brexit was very obviously always a terrible idea. So we’d best not seek to make cheap political capital about the sad fact that those much-needed ventilators somehow ended up sitting in Johnson’s junk mail, stuck in grim purgatory somewhere amid the ads for penis-enlargement pills and various scam emails about outstanding child support payments (NB: not all junk emails are actually junk).

There’s also the small matter that the EU’s ventilator procurement scheme was announced at a public press conference, and that the UK could take part was said, on camera, on live television.

Still, we are told that we will consider taking part in “future rounds” now that we’ve missed out on this one.

After all, what’s the rush? At the time of writing, the government is still insisting that the Brexit transition period will end on 31 December, and that the most severe public health and economic crisis quite possibly of all time will have no bearing upon it. That completely pointless event must be rushed through in about a seventh of the time that any sensible analysis dictates is required.

But getting the ventilators in? Don’t panic: there’ll be another boat along in a minute.

It has been stressed that this has nothing to do with ideology. It’s not about Brexit, it’s just a “communications mishap.” At this point, the traditional rhetorical method is to point out that they’re either lying or they’re incompetent.

Mercifully, such is the accumulated evidence that we aren’t required to make that choice. It might very well be a matter of life and death, but it’s certainly not a case of either/or. Both of these options are very much alive. They’re practically indestructible.

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