Government under scrutiny for delay in joining EU medical equipment scheme

The UK government is facing fresh question over why it took so long to join the European Union's medical equipment scheme when trying to tackle coronavirus.

Speaking on Wednesday, a health minister echoed Matt Hancock's denials that it was a "political decision" not to use the scheme which would have allowed the UK to secure items such as ventilators, protective equipment and testing kits.

The Health Secretary's assertion was issued after the Foreign Office’s top civil servant, Sir Simon McDonald, made the claim to the Commons foreign affairs committee on Tuesday.

Sir Simon has since performed a U-turn, saying he was "incorrect" to say that the government's motives were politically driven in a letter to the committee.

He said that “due to a misunderstanding” he had “inadvertently and wrongly” made the claim.

Sir Simon McDonald spoke to the select committee via video link.

On Wednesday, health minister Helen Whately again insisted there has not been a political decision made that the UK should not become involved in EU procurement programmes.

Ms Whately said the UK had since joined other EU procurement programmes.

"It is certainly frustrating that it appears there was a communication error to do with an email going astray, which meant we didn't participate in the previous programme," Ms Whately told ITV News.

"The context of that is that has failed to deliver any PPE to anyone in the EU, so it's not like at the moment we have missed out, and we've managed to get other supplies into the country.

"What we will do, is we will need to look and workout if it is worth participating and we are participating with one scheme around the procurement on therapeutics."

At the select committee meeting on Tuesday, member Chris Bryant MP said: “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.”

When questions around the UK's involvement began being asked in March, a spokesperson for the prime minister said: “Well, we are no longer members of the EU" and pointed towards other efforts to secure ventilators.

But later on March 26, Downing Street claimed there had been a “mix up” which meant emails from the EU about the procurement scheme were not received.

A government spokesperson said that “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 working ventilator. Credit: PA

Speaking at Downing Street’s daily Covid-19 update on Tuesday, Mr Hancock said: “I haven’t seen that exchange but I have spoken to the Foreign Secretary (Dominic Raab) and as far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme.”

“The invitation when it came in to the Department for Health – and I know there has been debate about whether it was sent to the wrong email address initially – to participate in this scheme in an associate way, because we are not members of the EU, came to me for decision and I said yes.

“It was a recommendation and I took the decision in the normal way – that’s the long and short of it.

“But the impact on our ability to deliver PPE is zero – there is no impact at all because the scheme has not yet made anything available.”

Matt Hancock spoke at Tuesday's daily briefing. Credit: PA

Also on Wednesday, the Liberal Democrats called for an inquiry into what they claimed was a slow response from the government to the coronavirus crisis.

Sir Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, accused ministers of putting “lives at risk” by failing to cooperate with Brussels.

He called for the Government to be “frank” about why the deadline for being involved was “missed or deliberately passed up”.

“This Government’s evident unwillingness to work with the European Union through the current crisis is unforgivable,” said the former energy secretary.

“Time and again, the Government seem to have missed opportunities to join the EU’s procurement efforts. Lives are at risk as a result.”

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know: