The Government’s decision not to take part in an EU ventilator and PPE procurement scheme has created a whirlwind of controversy. Previously, Downing Street had blamed the non-participation on missed emails, then a leading civil servant said that opting out was “a political decision”, before backtracking and muddying the issue.
Earlier today, an RAF aircraft brought much-needed supplies of PPE from Turkey, three days later than they were expected (via The Guardian). The possibility that PPE and ventilators could have been more readily available to hospitals, were it not for an email mix-up – the original explanation for opting out – has caused uproar.
Now, there is a suggestion that it was decisive action, rather than miscommunication, that excluded the UK from the EU scheme.
An initial statement, from a Downing Street 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.”
The story has since changed twice, Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said that he had briefed ministers about the scheme (via The Independent). He has since been forced to backtrack.
McDonald followed this up today, sending a letter explaining that opting out of the scheme was not, in fact, a “political decision”. This has since been posted on Twitter.
A letter from McDonald, explained:
“Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, I inadvertently and wrongly told the committee that ministers were briefed by UKMIS [the UK mission in Brussels] on the EU’s joint procurement agreement scheme and took a political decision not to participate in it. This is incorrect. Ministers were not briefed by our mission in Brussels about the scheme and a political decision was not taken on whether or not to participate.
“The facts of the situation are as previously set out. Owing to an initial communication problem, the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join in four joint Covid EU procurement schemes. As those four initial schemes had already gone out to tender we were unable to take part.”
In the latest update on the situation, the EU Commission has claimed that it “announced Jan 31 it could help Member States with organisation of Join Procurement [of medical supplies]”. Hence, the suggestion is that the UK was fully aware of the scheme (via The Guardian).
This seems to be an attempt from the EU Commission to refute the suggestion that a missed or ignored email was the reason for the UK’s non-participation.