As part of its response to the coronavirus, the EU decided it could use its buying power to jointly procure medical equipment. Downing Street claims “the UK did not receive an invitation in time” to join for the launch in mid-March. However, here are seven ways that show the UK would have known joint procurement was being discussed from January 2020 onwards.
- BATPHONE: An alert was sent out to EU+UK governments using the EU’s equivalent of the red telephone in Batman. The UK later claimed it had not received the email from the EU. The Early Warning and Response System is definitely not an email.
“The Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) is a web-based platform linking the European Commission, ECDC [EU’s disease control agency] and public health authorities in EU/EEA countries responsible for measures to control serious cross-border threats to health.”
European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
- SECURITY MEETINGS: The idea of joint procurement was raised by the EU at meetings the UK attended from 31 January 2020. There was a follow-up meeting on 4 February where the EU again proposed it.
“The Commission is ready to further support countries with the procurement of medical countermeasures if needed”
Minutes of the Health Security Committee, 4 February 2020
- SPEECHES: On 24 February the EU’s Health Commissioner (and psychologist), Stella Kyriakidou, gave the first of several speeches mentioning joint procurement. She mentioned it again in another speech in Rome on 26 February and in Brussels on 6 March.
“Another concrete example of support is our initiative to launch a joint procurement procedure…”
Rome, 26 February 2020
- PRESS RELEASE: On 28 February, as the first joint procurement on personal protective equipment (PPE) was launched, the EU issued a press release. A further press release was issued on 2 March.
“The Commission, together with the EU Member States, is also accelerating the process of the joint procurement of protective equipment, in order to facilitate necessary access to personal protective equipment needed by Members States in order to minimise potential shortages.”
European Commission, 28 February 2020
5. EU PRESIDENT: The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, made mention of joint procurement in a speech marking her 100th day in office.
“We have, as you know, within the Commission, a Coronavirus Response Team that is working with the Member States on the known issues: that is preparedness, risk assessment, the coordination of measures, the funding of research on diagnostics, on treatment and on vaccines, the joint procurement for example for protective gear.”
Ursula von der Leyen, 9 March 2020
6. VENTILATOR MISSPEAK: Aside from the batphone and security meetings, the first public mention specifically of ventilators for joint procurement was on 10 March. But here there was a mishap by the EU. Although the transcript specifies “ventilators”, in her speech to the European Parliament the EU’s Health Commissioner actually said “respirators”. However it is worth pointing out that UK officials had access to the written script as well as staff monitoring speeches in the chamber.
7. FURTHER VENTILATOR MENTIONS: Joint procurement of ventilators is specifically mentioned in the security meeting on 13 March. Even at this late stage, the UK could still have joined.
“The Commission is working on a joint procurement of ventilators.”
Minutes of the Health Security Committee, 13 March 2020
Too late. By mid-March it was too late. EU joint procurement for PPE and ventilators was done. On 19 March, a fourth procurement procedure was launched for test kits. Again the UK did not take part.
Why did the UK not take part?
UK REASON ONE
Lunchtime, 26 March 2020: Downing Street spokesperson asked why the UK is not taking part in joint procurement and responds that “We are no longer members of the EU”.
UK REASON TWO
5pm, 26 March 2020: UK spokesperson said, “owing to an initial communication problem, the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join in four joint procurements”
27 March 2020: European Commission responds that the UK had been present when joint procurement was discussed and had also been alerted through the Early Warning and Response System.
UK REASON THREE AND FOUR
21 April 2020: British diplomat, Sir Simon McDonald, appears before parliamentary committee and says it was a “political decision” not to take part in joint procurement. The UK Health Secretary countered later the same day:
“There was no political decision not to participate. 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.”
Matt Hancock (UK Health Secretary), 21 April 2020
UK REASON FIVE
Sir Simon McDonald writes to the committee with a retraction, but in doing so gives another new reason: The UK had not taken part because it’s own UK staff in Brussels had failed to brief ministers, he said.