In Depth

Why everybody’s talking about the EU medical scheme

UK government criticised for failing to take up offer of PPE procurement

Boris Johnson’s government is under fire for failing to explain why the UK did not take part in an EU scheme to source medical supplies urgently needed to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

Ministers have been forced to deny that a “political decision” was taken to opt out of the programme to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line healthcare workers - but many questions remain unanswered.

What is the EU medical scheme?

The scheme is designed to facilitate the purchase of medical equipment including masks, gloves, goggles, gowns, testing kits and ventilators - all of which are currently in dangerously short supply in the UK.

The purpose of having a joint 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”, says The Guardian.

Or as The Independent puts it, the programme uses the “purchasing power of the 500-million-person single market to secure priority orders during a time of a global shortage”. 

According to The Guardian, the EU has made four calls for tender of PPE and ventilators since late February, of all of which “have successfully found companies willing to supply the goods to the scale and quality required”.

The UK signed the EU’s Joint Procurement Agreement in 2014 in the wake of the H1N1 pandemic, and under the terms of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, has the right to take part until 31 December 2020.

Why didn’t the UK take part?

Reports that the UK was not involved in the bloc’s bulk purchasing of PPE and ventilators first emerged in March, when a government spokesperson said country was not taking part because it was “not in the EU”.

However, that line was changed within 24 hours following a backlash, with the government then claiming that the EU email inviting the UK to join the scheme had been sent to an out-of-date and defunct email address.

But earlier this week, the Foreign Office’s most senior official, permanent secretary Simon McDonald, said that the UK’s opt-out of the EU scheme had been a deliberate choice.

When quizzed by Labour MP Chris Bryant during a virtual appearance on Tuesday before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, McDonald said: “The UK declined to participate because we left the European Union on 31 January.

“It was a political decision. The UK mission in Brussels briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer, and the decision is known.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock subsequently denied those claims.

“I have spoken to the foreign secretary,” Hancock said an hour after McDonald made his statement. “As far as I’m aware 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.” 

Shortly afterwards, McDonald issued a formal correction in a letter to the select committee.

“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, in a total U-turn on his earlier statement.

A spokesperson for the European Commission then confirmed that the UK was not taking part in the PPE and ventilator scheme, but added that “they are most welcome to participate in future rounds”.

Meanwhile, an EU official told The Independent: “[The UK is] not participating in any of the existing schemes but they have indicated that they would be open to participating in any future schemes.”

Criticising the government for failing to take part this time around, select committee member Bryant said: “It beggars belief that [the government] deliberately, intentionally, with forethought and against advice, decided not to take part. And that they trotted out every excuse in the book when they realised they had messed up.”

He added: “It seems that not content with refusing to take part in a mass EU purchase of desperately needed vital equipment out of a fit of Eurosceptic pique, the government has repeatedly told fibs in a sad attempt to cover its tracks.”

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