Boris Johnson’s ministers deliberately snubbed EU efforts to buy equipment to help the fight against coronavirus – despite claiming it had been an accident, a senior civil servant revealed today.
Sir Simon McDonald told MPs it had been a ‘political decision’ by the Government not to take part in Brussels-orchestrated efforts to bulk-buy protective equipment.
His evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee today raises questions about the Government’s account of what happened.
Boris Johnson’s administration has previously claimed that ‘communication problems’ caused by missed emails had meant the UK did not take part in a procurement scheme for ventilators and PPE.
Sir Simon, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, told MPs officials briefed ministers on what EU schemes were still open to the UK, even though it left the bloc at the end of January.
Asked why the UK was not involved in EU procurement, Sir Simon said: ‘We left the European Union on January 31.’
But pressed by Labour MP Chris Bryant, who said the UK had ‘every right’ to participate in the schemes, Sir Simon said: ‘All I can say is, as a matter of fact, we have not taken part.’
Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat asked Sir Simon whether it was a political decision by ministers.
‘It was a political decision,’ he said.
But Health Secretary Matt Hancock this evening directly contradicted the senior mandarin.
Fronting the daily news conference he said: ‘I haven’t seen that exchange but I have spoken to the Foreign Secretary and as far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme.
Sir Simon McDonald told MPs it had been a ‘political decision’ not to take part in Brussels-orchestrated efforts to bulk-buy protective equipment.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the daily news conference this evening
Missed opportunities to get more PPE
January 31: On the day of Brexit, a UK official attends UK meeting on the emerging virus. Four countries raise the potential need for more PPE – UK is not among them.
February 4: UK attends meeting of EU and World Health Organisation (WHO) officials in Luxembourg.
February 24: European Commission updates officials on PPE procurement and asks countries to outline their ‘exact needs’. The UK was invited but did not attend.
February 28: The EU makes its first join procurement of £1.2million of gloves and gowns. The UK is not involved.
March 12: The procurement fails because of a shortage of suppliers and is relaunched on March 15, still without UK involvement.
March 17: Two more rounds of procurement for masks, goggles and ventilators go forward without the UK
March 19. The UK joins the procurement steering committee but does not join a tender sent out to firms the same day for lab supplies.
March 23: Health Secretary Matt Hancock admits there have been ‘challenges’ with PPE supply but was taking the issue ‘very seriously’.
March 24: No 10 confirms it has not joined EU procurement effort in favour of its own plan. It later claims it did not join because it missed an email invitation.
March 25: British officials do not attend a meeting at which countries were invited to outline their requirements for future purchases by the next day.
March 26: The Government says it has 8,175 ventilators, but asks UK firms to build 30,000 more within weeks.
March 29: Two surgeons become the first UK medics to die from coronavirus, putting a spotlight on PPE supplies for the NHS.
April 10: Mr Hancock appears to suggest NHS medics are being wasteful of masks and gowns, urging them to ‘treat PPE as the precious resource it is’.
April 11: Mr Hancock confirms that 19 medics have died from coronavirus, after initially saying it would be ‘inappropriate’ to reveal the death toll.
April 13: Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acknowledged that PPE shortages were and issue and admitted supplies were running low because of ‘a competitive market out there’.
‘We did receive an invitation in the Department of Health and 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 a single item of PPE (personal protective equipment).’
British officials at the UK Mission to the European Union in Brussels ‘briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer, and the decision is no’, he added.
The EU has ordered €1.5billion (£1.3billion) worth of protective masks, gowns and gloves for doctors and nurses.
Some 25 European countries and eight companies are involved in the joint PPE procurement scheme but the UK will miss out because it did not take part in any of the three rounds of bulk-buying which were first launched by the EU in February.
This was despite being invited to do so.
Although Brexit took place on January 31, the UK remains in a transition period aligned with Brussels until the end of the year at least – with calls for it to be extended.
Whitehall officials reportedly only realised after all three rounds of procurement had been put out to tender that they had not received invitations to join the Joint Procurement Agreement steering committee where the orders are organised.
After telling the EU commission that the invitation emails were being sent to an outdated address the UK finally participated in its first meeting on joint PPE procurement on March 19.
However, British officials did not follow up that meeting and did not attend on March 25 when participating countries were invited to outline their requirements for future purchases by the next day.
On March 26, Downing Street claimed there had been a ‘mix up’ which meant emails from the EU about the procurement scheme were not received.
A Government spokesman said at the time that ‘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’.
The lack of British involvement in the schemes has led to claims that it was motivated by Brexiteer ideology in Mr Johnson’s administration – a claim denied by Downing Street.
Mr Hancock tonight said he was ‘determined’ to ensure that all staff had the personal protective equipment that they need.
He said the Government was working to expand its supply base in the UK and overseas and had entered direct talks with the factories that produce the PPE and the fabric that it is made of.
Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat (pictured) asked Sir Simon whether it was a political decision by ministers. ‘It was a political decision,’ he said
He said 8,331 companies had come forward with offers of PPE – some of which had led to ‘very large-scale’ purchases.
‘I am very grateful to all of those who have come forward and we are now actively engaged with hundreds of these companies,’ he said.
‘I can announce that we are working with 159 potential UK manufacturers which are starting to come on stream.’
Naomi Smith, of pro-EU campaign Best for Britain, said: ‘If it was a political decision not to join Europe-wide schemes to bulk-buy PPE and other essential medical equipment, then the Government prioritised its own image over the country’s health.
‘That decision has been disastrous. Frontline workers deserve much better.
‘We urge the Government to seek participation in future schemes as soon as possible, so we can source the medical supplies Britain’s hospitals and care homes desperately need.’