LONDON — The U.K. government has struggled to explain its decision not to participate in an EU scheme to jointly procure medical equipment needed to tackle the coronavirus crisis.
Back in January, the European Commission began discussions about a program to jointly buy ventilators and protective equipment for healthcare workers.
Since early March, various members of the U.K. government have given differing accounts of the U.K.’s involvement and its decision not to join.
Here’s a reminder of who said what when.
March 3: POLITICO’s Ashleigh Furlong asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a press conference about whether the health secretary was coordinating the U.K.’s response to the pandemic with his counterparts in other EU countries. Johnson did not answer the question and instead focused on the “global response.”
March 17: The European Commission confirmed Britain was still “eligible to participate in these joint [procurement] procedures” despite formally leaving the EU on January 31.
March 19: Liberal Democrats call for Britain to take part in the EU’s scheme.
March 26: No. 10 initially said it would not take part because the U.K. was “no longer a member [of the EU]” and was “making our own efforts” but later clarified it had missed out because of a communication error.
Pressed at a lobby briefing if the decision was related to Brexit ideology, a spokesman said: “No, as I say, this is an area where we’re making our own efforts.”
Afternoon: A Downing Street spokesman said later that day: “Owing to an initial communication problem, the U.K. did not receive an invitation in time to join in four joint procurements in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 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.”
March 27: A spokesperson for the European Commission confirmed Britain is able to participate in “any joint procurement” during the 11-month Brexit transition period. “The member states’ needs for personal protective equipment have been discussed several times in the meetings of the health security committee where the U.K. participated,” spokesperson Stefan De Keersmaecker said.
March 30: The Guardian reported on official minutes which show British officials took part in four meetings where EU projects to bulk-buy medical kit were discussed — the earliest in January.
April 21: 3:50 p.m. Britain’s top diplomat, Simon McDonald, claimed ministers took a “political decision” not to take part in an EU scheme to buy protective equipment and ventilators.
5 p.m. Speaking at Downing Street’s daily press conference, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “When we did receive an invitation in the Department of Health, because it came to the Department of Health, it was put up to me to be asked. And we joined. So we are now members of that scheme. However, as far as I know that scheme hasn’t yet delivered a single item of PPE,” he said.
8:25 p.m.: Foreign affairs select committee chairman Tom Tugendhat published a letter from McDonald clarifying his remarks. The letter stated that due to a “misunderstanding,” McDonald’s assertion that not participating in the EU scheme was a political choice was “incorrect.”
April 22: A European Commission spokesperson told POLITICO the U.K. had “ample opportunities” to participate in the EU’s efforts to jointly procure protective gear and medical equipment. “There was the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we want to join the joint procurement,'” the spokesperson said. “I don’t see how an email sent or not sent would change that assessment.”
The spokesperson also confirmed that no country has received equipment under the scheme yet, though the Commission has signed contracts to purchase gloves, eye gear and ventilators. There are four joint programs underway — two covering protective equipment, one covering ventilators, and one lab equipment — and a fourth planned for therapeutics. He said the U.K. has signed the legal agreement that would allow it to participate but it did not join the four processes that are already underway.