Brussels has dismissed a claim by Boris Johnson’s government that a communications mix-up stopped the UK participating in an emergency EU scheme to help procure vital medical equipment and ventilators to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
It comes after No 10 initially said it did not join efforts because the UK was no longer a member state – prompting outrage the government was putting “Brexit over breathing” as cases of covid-19 continue to climb.
“We are no longer members of the EU,” the prime minister’s official spokesperson told reporters early on Thursday. “We are doing our own work on ventilators and we have had a very strong response from business. We have sourced ventilators from the private sector and international manufacturers.”
After mounting criticism, the spokesperson later sought to clarify the reason, claiming the UK had missed the procurement deadline due to a “communication problem” which meant the country was not invited to apply in time.
But speaking on Friday, a spokesperson for the European Commission confirmed Britain is able to participate in “any joint procurement” during the 11-month Brexit transition period.
Rubbishing the administrative error claim, they went on: “The member states’ needs for personal protective equipment have been discussed several times in the meetings of the health security committee where the UK participated.
“At these meetings, the commission stressed its readiness to further support countries with the procurement of medical countermeasures if needed, so member states and the UK had the opportunity to signal their interest to participate in any joint procurements.”
Downing Street has since said the government is interested in taking part in future European-led procurement efforts to attain more ventilators.
The procurement programme, initiated by the commission, uses the bulk buying power of the single market to get priority for ventilators and protective equipment – which doctors have warned are in short supply in the UK. The first tranche of orders, which will go to 25 of the 27 member states, covers “masks type 2 and 3, gloves, goggles, face shields, surgical masks and overalls”.
On Friday, Downing Street insisted it is doing “all we can” to secure more ventilators, as Mr Johnson, who has tested positive for the virus, continued talks with industry officials on producing more for the NHS.
No 10 added that 8,000 additional ventilators had been ordered by the government to boost the stock of 8,000 currently available to the health service. Officials said that thousands more will be available in the “coming weeks”, with the peak of the virus expected to hit within the next fortnight.
But a UK businessman said the government had lost out on thousands of potentially life saving ventilators from Direct Access – a firm that contacted the Department for Health with the offer of 5,000 new ventilators a week ago. The company said the supplies were bought up by other customers before health chiefs had made a decision.
Steven Misfud, the owner of Direct Access, told the Nantwich News the government had apologised to him for “being to slow to respond” due to a significant amount of offers received by the government.