British officials took part in four meetings where EU projects to bulk-buy medical kit were discussed – the earliest in January, according to official minutes that heap doubt on government claims of missing an email.
Jennifer Rankin www.theguardian.com
Last week Downing Street claimed that it failed to take part in an EU scheme to source life-saving ventilators and other kit 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 of the EU and was “making our own efforts”. After critics accused Boris Johnson of putting “Brexit over breathing”, Downing Street clarified that missing out was an error and it would consider participating in future. It is understood the UK claimed not to have received an email from the EU asking it to participate.
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.”
The UK was also able to sign up for EU procurement schemes via the EU’s “Early Warning and Response System”, an intranet site where European countries exchange information about communicable diseases.
The government claimed last week that the UK “did not receive an invitation in time to join in four joint procurements in response to the coronavirus pandemic”. Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove repeated this account on Sunday, when he said there had been “communication confusion”, although added he was unaware of the details.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office did not respond to questions about how “communication confusion” mentioned by Gove was possible given UK participation in meetings where EU procurement was discussed, as shown in the EU documents. Instead, the spokesperson sent a transcript of Gove’s remarks on the Andrew Marr Show.
Behind the scenes British officials maintain the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join four EU procurement schemes – an argument made last week by Number 10.
The four bulk-buying projects were conceived at different moments over several weeks in February and March, as the coronavirus crisis in Europe escalated, raising questions about whether there ever just one invitation covering all four schemes.
The Department for Health and Social Care has not yet responded to a request for comment.
The Department of Health initially declined to comment when the Guardian reported last week that the UK had decided not to participate in any of four EU procurement schemes to buy medical equipment in response to the coronavirus crisis.
Nearly all EU countries, 25 out of 27, are taking part in the project for shared purchase of ventilators, while the same number are joining forces to buy protective kit for medical staff, such as masks and overalls. Separately, 19 are teaming up to buy laboratory equipment needed for tests.
Under then prime minister David Cameron, the government signed the EU’s joint procurement agreement in 2014, which was drawn up after some member states experienced shortages of medical kit during the H1N1 pandemic. The terms of the Brexit transition deal means the government has the right to take part in EU joint procurement until 31 December 2020.
The logic behind joint procurement is to reduce red tape, get better prices through wholesale purchase and take advantage of medical purchasing skills that may be weaker in some countries, especially smaller ones.
Liese urged the UK government to continue working with the rest of Europe on the search for better treatments and a vaccine against Covid-19. “When the scientists from Berlin, Rome, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge work together [on treatments] we are faster and better than if we would work separately. The same applies to vaccines. European cooperation is crucial.”
The European commission said on Friday the UK “is most welcome to join any future procurement launch”.