What is the EU medical equipment scheme and why did UK opt out? | World news

The British government is coming under fire for failing to join the EU’s procurement scheme for medical equipment, including masks, gloves, goggles, gowns, testing kits and ventilators, at a time when NHS health workers across the country are crying out for more supplies. In the latest twist, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, was forced to deny claims, later retracted, by the government’s senior diplomat that it had been a “political decision” to opt out of the scheme.

What is the EU joint procurement programme?

The British government signed the EU’s joint procurement agreement in 2014 after the H1N1 pandemic had highlighted weaknesses in the access and purchasing power of EU countries to obtain pandemic vaccines and medicines.

Under the terms of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the government has the right to take part until 31 December 2020. The purpose of the scheme is to allow participants to act together as a big block purchaser, securing the best prices and forcing the way to the front of the queue at a time of shortage.

What bulk buys have been made this time?

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the EU has launched four calls for tender for medical equipment and supplies. It invited companies to supply gloves and surgical gowns on 28 February, personal protective equipment (PPE) for eye and respiratory protection on 15 March and medical ventilators and respiratory equipment on the same day. A final call to companies to supply laboratory equipment, including testing kits, was made on 19 March. The total value of PPE being purchased is around €1.5bn (£1.3bn). The EU ceiling for purchases of ventilators is €790m. The first call for tender of PPE on 28 February failed because of a lack of suitable suppliers. It was relaunched on 12 March. Since then all four calls for tender have successfully found companies willing to supply the goods to the scale and quality required. The timeline for delivery varies. Some of the PPE is expected imminently. There is a longer time frame for deliveries of ventilators with the EU warning member states that it could take as long as a year for the all the machines to arrive.

Why has the UK not been involved?

When it emerged last month that the UK was not involved in the EU’s bulk purchase of ventilators despite being aware of its existence and purpose, a Downing Street spokesman said the UK had not joined as the country was “not in the EU”. That line changed within 24 hours and a communications error was blamed. An email from the European commission inviting the UK to join had been sent to an out-of-date and defunct address. When the Guardian reported last week that there had been multiple opportunities to be involved with the purchase of PPE, as well as ventilators, further details had emerged of the communications error. The UK, it was said, had only received an invitation to sit on the the EU’s joint procurement agreement steering group on the 19 March. By then all four of the procurements had been organised.

What has happened in the last 24 hours?

The Foreign Office’s permanent secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, flatly contradicted the explanation of the UK’s opt-out during an appearance in front of a House of Commons select committee. “It was a political decision,” McDonald said. “The UK mission in Brussels briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer, and the decision is known.” The comments raised concerns that Brexit ideology had been put before the practicalities of saving lives.

Within an hour, Hancock denied that there had been a “political decision”. Shortly afterwards, McDonald issued a formal correction in a letter to the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat. “Ministers were not briefed by our mission in Brussels about the scheme and a political decision was not taken whether or not to participate,” McDonald wrote.

Has the UK lost out?

Hancock and Helen Whately, the care minister, pointed out on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning that the EU’s scheme has yet to deliver any medical supplies. It has also been suggested by anonymous government officials to various media outlets that the UK is now part of a procurement of therapeutics and products required for vaccines.

In reality, no such new procurements have yet been launched. As for the ongoing procurements, eight suppliers have offered PPE products in excess of that being ordered by the participating member states, and deliveries are expected to European healthcare workers shortly.

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