What lay behind the UK’s ‘political decision’ to opt out of the EU’s ventilator procurement scheme?
The most senior Foreign Office official told MPs that ministers had been made aware of the scheme but made a "political decision" not to take part
UPDATE: Sir Simon McDonald has since written to the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, to clarify that due to a "misunderstanding" he had "inadvertanty and wrongly" told the Committee that ministers had taken a political decision not to participate in the EU's Joint Procurement Agreement scheme, adding: "Ministers were not briefing by our mission in Brussels about the scheme nd a political decision was not taken on whether or not to participate."
The most senior civil servant in the Foreign Office said today the UK government had made a “political decision” not to take part in an EU-wide scheme to buy ventilators and other medical equipment to help fight the coronavirus.
In an extraordinary appearance before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Sir Simon McDonald also suggested that ministers overlooked official advice in opting out of the procurement initiative.
“It was a political decision,” he told MPs. UK officials in Brussels had briefed ministers “about what was on offer and the decision is known,” he continued.
McDonald was pressed by Labour MP Chris Bryant during a virtual evidence session of the committee. When asked why the UK did not take part in the scheme, McDonald explained: “We left the European Union on 31st January.”
Bryant responded: “We had every right to take part, we were invited to take part, apparently we missed the emails or forgot the emails or didn’t ask for emails, five of the meetings we didn’t attend but lots of the meetings we did attend. It’s not about leaving the European Union.”
“All I can say is, as a matter of fact, we have not taken part,” said McDonald.
Speaking at the daily press conference in Downing St, Health Secretary Matt Hancock rejected the claims, saying there was "no political decision not to participate".
"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.
There was initial confusion in March after the EU said Britain had declined to sign up to a joint procurement procedure to buy ventilators on behalf of 25 member states. The UK was allowed to participate under the terms of the transition deal signed with the EU.
Downing Street initially said the UK would not be taking part because “we are no longer members of the EU”. “We are conducting our own work on ventilators and we’ve had a very strong response from business, and we’ve also procured ventilators from the private sector in the UK and from international manufacturers,” a No 10 spokesman said.
The Government later insisted a communications mix-up meant it missed the deadline to join the scheme. "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,” a spokesperson said.
"As the (European) 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."
In an interview with The House, Lord Ricketts, the UK’s former National Security Advisor, said the mix up was “a real issue that needs real scrutiny when Parliament is back”.
While the Government says it is “working hard” with international partners to acquire personal protective equipment, there are still mounting concerns about the supply of PPE for NHS staff.
The Conservatives were elected on a pledge to “Get Brexit done” and have been determined to see that this commitment was carried through. But opting out of the EU-wide scheme on the basis of no longer being members of the bloc – despite being eligible to take part – would be deeply ideological. Hancock was insistant that this was not the case.
Ministers have been similarly categorical with regards to the transition period, with the Government giving no truck to the notion of sanctioning an extension.
Politics is no longer operating on the demands and needs of Britain in December 2019. On 31st of January, Boris Johnson got Brexit done.
Protecting the nation’s health is now of more importance than being seen to tenuously abide by the result of the EU referendum.