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Top civil servant says ministers made a ‘political decision’ to DELIBERATELY snub EU PPE scheme

Boris Johnson’s ministers deliberately snubbed EU efforts to buy equipment to help the fight against coronavirus – despite claiming it had been an accident, a senior civil servant revealed today.

Sir Simon McDonald told MPs it had been a ‘political decision’ by the Government not to take part in Brussels-orchestrated efforts to bulk-buy protective equipment.

His evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee today raises questions about the Government’s account of what happened.

Boris Johnson’s administration has previously claimed that ‘communication problems’ caused by missed emails had meant the UK did not take part in a procurement scheme for ventilators and PPE.

It came amid a furore over 84 tons of desperately-needed PPE supplies that have yet to be delivered from Turkey to the UK.

 An RAF transport remains  grounded in Istanbul – empty – days after ministers claimed the cargo was due to arrive.

Sir Simon, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, told MPs officials briefed ministers on what EU schemes were still open to the UK, even though it left the bloc at the end of January. 

Asked why the UK was not involved in EU procurement, Sir Simon said: ‘We left the European Union on January 31.’

But pressed by Labour MP Chris Bryant, who said the UK had ‘every right’ to participate in the schemes, Sir Simon said: ‘All I can say is, as a matter of fact, we have not taken part.’

Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat asked Sir Simon whether it was a political decision by ministers.

‘It was a political decision,’ he said.

But Health Secretary Matt Hancock this evening directly contradicted the senior mandarin.

Fronting the daily news conference he said: ‘I haven’t seen that exchange but I have spoken to the Foreign Secretary and as far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme. 

Sir Simon McDonald told MPs it had been a ‘political decision’ not to take part in Brussels-orchestrated efforts to bulk-buy protective equipment.

Sir Simon gave evidence to the committee remotely because of the coronavirus lockdown

Sir Simon gave evidence to the committee remotely because of the coronavirus lockdown

Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the daily news conference this evening

Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the daily news conference this evening

Missed opportunities to get more PPE 

January 31: On the day of Brexit, a UK official attends UK meeting on the emerging virus. Four countries raise the potential need for more PPE –  UK is not among them.

February 4:  UK attends meeting of EU and World Health Organisation (WHO) officials in Luxembourg.

February 24:  European Commission updates officials on PPE procurement and asks countries to outline their ‘exact needs’. The UK was invited but did not attend.

February 28:  The EU makes its first join procurement of £1.2million of gloves and gowns. The UK is not involved.

March 12: The procurement fails because of a shortage of suppliers and is relaunched on March 15, still without UK involvement.

March 17: Two more rounds of procurement for masks, goggles and ventilators go forward without the UK

March 19. The UK joins the procurement steering committee but does not join a tender sent out to firms the same day for lab supplies.

March 23: Health Secretary Matt Hancock admits there have been ‘challenges’ with PPE supply but was taking the issue ‘very seriously’. 

March 24:  No 10 confirms it has not joined EU procurement effort in favour of its own plan. It later claims it did not join because it missed an email invitation.

March 25: British officials do not attend a meeting at which countries were invited to outline their requirements for future purchases by the next day.

March 26:  The Government says it has 8,175 ventilators, but asks UK firms to build 30,000 more within weeks.

March 29: Two surgeons become the first UK medics to die from coronavirus, putting a spotlight on PPE supplies for the NHS. 

April 10:  Mr Hancock appears to suggest NHS medics are being wasteful of masks and gowns, urging them to  ‘treat PPE as the precious resource it is’.

April 11: Mr Hancock confirms that 19 medics have died from coronavirus, after initially saying it would be ‘inappropriate’ to reveal the death toll.

April 13: Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acknowledged that PPE shortages were and issue and admitted supplies were running low because of ‘a competitive market out there’.

‘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.

‘However, as far as I know that scheme hasn’t a single item of PPE (personal protective equipment).’

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: ‘First we were told the Government missed an email invitation to join the EU procurement scheme. 

‘Then we were told the decision not to take part was a political decision. Now we are told that the Government did sign up to the scheme.

‘This is not a trivial matter. Ministers needs to explain what has happened and who is speaking for the Government on this matter.’

British officials at the UK Mission to the European Union in Brussels ‘briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer, and the decision is no’, he added.

The EU has ordered €1.5billion (£1.3billion) worth of protective masks, gowns and gloves for doctors and nurses.

Some 25 European countries and eight companies are involved in the joint PPE procurement scheme  but the UK will miss out because it did not take part in any of the three rounds of bulk-buying which were first launched by the EU in February.

This was despite being invited to do so.

Although Brexit took place on January 31, the UK remains in a transition period aligned with Brussels until the end of the year at least – with calls for it to be extended.  

Whitehall officials reportedly only realised after all three rounds of procurement had been put out to tender that they had not received invitations to join the Joint Procurement Agreement steering committee where the orders are organised. 

After telling the EU commission that the invitation emails were being sent to an outdated address the UK finally participated in its first meeting on joint PPE procurement on March 19.

However, British officials did not follow up that meeting and did not attend on March 25 when participating countries were invited to outline their requirements for future purchases by the next day.

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 spokesman said at the time 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’.

Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat (pictured) asked Sir Simon whether it was a political decision by ministers. 'It was a political decision,' he said

Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat (pictured) asked Sir Simon whether it was a political decision by ministers. ‘It was a political decision,’ he said

The lack of British involvement in the schemes has led to claims that it was motivated by Brexiteer ideology in Mr Johnson’s administration – a claim denied by Downing Street.

Acting Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey said: ‘This Government’s evident unwillingness to work with the European Union through the current crisis is unforgivable. 

‘Time and again, the Government seem to have missed opportunities to join the EU’s procurement efforts. 

‘Continued shortages of PPE over the last few days coupled with the Government’s failure to scale up testing for NHS and social care workers demonstrate that the current approach hasn’t delivered. Lives are at risk as a result.’

Mr Hancock tonight said he was ‘determined’ to ensure that all staff had the personal protective equipment that they need.

He said the Government was working to expand its supply base in the UK and overseas and had entered direct talks with the factories that produce the PPE and the fabric that it is made of.

He said 8,331 companies had come forward with offers of PPE – some of which had led to ‘very large-scale’ purchases.

‘I am very grateful to all of those who have come forward and we are now actively engaged with hundreds of these companies,’ he said.

‘I can announce that we are working with 159 potential UK manufacturers which are starting to come on stream.’

Naomi Smith, of pro-EU campaign Best for Britain, said: ‘If it was a political decision not to join Europe-wide schemes to bulk-buy PPE and other essential medical equipment, then the Government prioritised its own image over the country’s health.

‘That decision has been disastrous. Frontline workers deserve much better.

‘We urge the Government to seek participation in future schemes as soon as possible, so we can source the medical supplies Britain’s hospitals and care homes desperately need.’

Pictured empty and stranded on the tarmac, the RAF plane STILL grounded in Turkey awaiting PPE cargo for UK coronavirus battle… amid claim government ignored offer of 10 million masks made on home soil

Pictured for the first time empty and stuck on the tarmac in Istanbul airport, this is the RAF transport plane that remains grounded in Turkey while it waits to collect 84 tons of desperately-needed PPE supplies.

The Atlas A400 remains unloaded, sources have told MailOnline, with the vital life-saving equipment nowhere to be seen at the airport as Turkey battles its own growing coronavirus crisis.

The aircraft, which the Government promised would arrive back in Britain on Sunday, didn’t land in Istanbul until Monday, at 21:10 local time. An airport worker said it had technical problems, but RAF sources denied this.

The transport flight has been dogged by delays and confusion. Ministers then claimed it would arrive yesterday but it remains unloaded and has not yet taken off, as MailOnline’s pictures reveal. 

The Atlas A400 remains empty, sources have told MailOnline, with the vital life-saving equipment nowhere to be seen at the airport as Turkey battles its own growing coronavirus crisis

The Atlas A400 remains empty, sources have told MailOnline, with the vital life-saving equipment nowhere to be seen at the airport as Turkey battles its own growing coronavirus crisis

The transport flight has been dogged by delays and confusion. Ministers then claimed it would arrive yesterday but it remains unloaded and has not yet taken off, as MailOnline's pictures reveal

The transport flight has been dogged by delays and confusion. Ministers then claimed it would arrive yesterday but it remains unloaded and has not yet taken off, as MailOnline’s pictures reveal

Ministers have blamed 'challenges at the Turkish end' for the issues, but Istanbul has retorted that Britain only requested help with the consignment on Sunday

Ministers have blamed ‘challenges at the Turkish end’ for the issues, but Istanbul has retorted that Britain only requested help with the consignment on Sunday

The aircraft remains empty and still has not been loaded with the PPE supplies, which have yet to arrive at the airport

The aircraft remains empty and still has not been loaded with the PPE supplies, which have yet to arrive at the airport

PPE supplies have not even arrived at the airport yet, while the RAF plane continues to wait for the badly needed equipment

PPE supplies have not even arrived at the airport yet, while the RAF plane continues to wait for the badly needed equipment

A senior RAF source confirmed: ‘The RAF has pre-positioned the Atlas A400M to ensure air transport is available when the PPE is delivered, which we are hopeful for in the near future.’

Ministers have blamed ‘challenges at the Turkish end’ for the issues, but Istanbul has retorted that Britain only requested help with the consignment on Sunday.

Fury over coronavirus PPE shortages escalated this week amid claims the government was ignoring offers of help from businesses – and millions of pieces of PPE are still being shipped out of the UK in spite of the shortages. 

A British supplier said they were forced to sell millions of life-saving items overseas after attempts to equip the NHS were met with an ‘impenetrable wall of bureaucracy’ – while other firms complained they had ‘no choice’ about sending masks and respirators abroad because the Government had repeatedly ignored offers of help. 

Bill Esterson, Labour MP for Sefton Central, today claimed that one of his constituents offered to make 10 million masks on March 27 but never received a reply – and when the MP wrote to the Government himself he also did not get a response. 

Downing Street rejected claims it ignored offers from firms, while local government minister Simon Clarke said there is a ‘standing presumption’ that the Government will do its utmost to buy PPE ‘wherever it can be sourced’ and urged manufacturers to ‘reach out’ to the Cabinet Office to log their ability to make equipment.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been at pains to present his country’s performance in handling the pandemic as among the world’s most effective, while keeping close control over the flow of information.

But records of deaths in Istanbul suggest that the crisis in Turkey is far bigger than its authorities are admitting, with the New York Times reporting that 2,100 more deaths than expected were recorded between March 9 and April 12.  

Bill Esterson, Labour MP for Sefton Central, today claimed that one of his constituents offered to make 10 million masks on March 27 but never received a reply - and when the MP wrote to the Government himself he also did not get a response

Bill Esterson, Labour MP for Sefton Central, today claimed that one of his constituents offered to make 10 million masks on March 27 but never received a reply – and when the MP wrote to the Government himself he also did not get a response

With some hospitals resorting to washing medical gowns for reuse and doctors warning they might have to stop treating patients, ministers have been desperately playing down expectations about the shipment.

UK’s ‘impenetrable wall of bureaucracy’ stops firm supplying PPE 

Amid growing frustration, the Government said it had deployed ‘every resource’ to get its hands on desperately needed PPE supplies and ventilators in recent months. NHS staff are pictured carrying out coronavirus tests in Lincoln

Amid growing frustration, the Government said it had deployed ‘every resource’ to get its hands on desperately needed PPE supplies and ventilators in recent months. NHS staff are pictured carrying out coronavirus tests in Lincoln

A British supplier of protective health equipment was forced to sell millions of life- saving items overseas after attempts to equip the NHS were met with an ‘impenetrable wall of bureaucracy’.

The company said UK procurement system was ‘unresponsive at best or incompetent at worst’ and delays were putting lives at risk.

The embarrassing revelations will raise questions about why the Government did not replenish PPE stockpiles and build up more supplies in March as the country entered the crisis.

Amid growing frustration, the Government said it had deployed ‘every resource’ to get its hands on desperately needed PPE supplies and ventilators in recent months.

But the supplier trying to sell millions of masks, gowns and aprons yesterday said it had spent ‘five weeks hammering at the Government’s door’ without response.

Michelle van Vuuren, who runs a London-based property company, turned her business into a PPE distributor working with Chinese suppliers last month as the virus began to spread around the world.

After failed attempts to contact NHS procurement services, Miss van Vuuren contacted Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s office on March 20.

She was subsequently passed to the Cabinet Office but her inquiries went ‘into a vacuum’ and were met with only an automated response.

When asked about the situation, communities minister Simon Clarke told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It will be with us obviously in the UK in the next few days, which is the core priority.’

The row widened today amid claims that millions of pieces of PPE are still being shipped out of the UK in spite of the shortages.   

A British supplier of PPE told the Mail they were forced to sell millions of life- saving items overseas after attempts to equip the NHS were met with an ‘impenetrable wall of bureaucracy’.

The company said the UK procurement system was ‘unresponsive at best or incompetent at worst’ and delays were putting lives at risk.

Other firms told the Telegraph they had ‘no choice’ about sending masks, respirators and other pieces of kit abroad because the Government had repeatedly ignored offers of help.  

Mr Clarke said there is a ‘standing presumption’ that the Government will do its utmost to buy PPE ‘wherever it can be sourced’ and urged manufacturers to ‘reach out’ to the Cabinet Office to log their ability to make equipment.

But shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves told Today programme she had been ‘inundated’ with manufacturers who have contacted the Government offering to make PPE but have heard nothing back.

‘There are many, many businesses around the country who have perhaps furloughed workers but have the capability and the capacity and the skills to make this personal protective equipment and clothing – particularly the gowns – but have not heard back from the Government.

‘Some of them are doing it on an ad-hoc basis for local hospitals or care homes, but this needs to be systematic – it needs to be a national effort, using all of our manufacturing and textile capacity and capability to ensure that the doctors and nurses and care workers … have that equipment and clothing that they need.’

Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the regular Downing Street briefing last night that government is pursuing ‘every possible option’ around the world to bolster supplies. 

Mr Sunak said the UK and other countries are facing an ‘international challenge’ to source the equipment and that ministers are ‘working hard to get the PPE our frontline NHS and social care staff need’.

He said Britain is still ‘working to resolve the Turkish shipment of PPE as soon as possible’ but was unable to say when it will arrive. He did reveal a shipment of 140,000 gowns from Myanmar was unloaded in the UK yesterday.

One of three RAF jets that have been on standby left Brize Norton in Oxfordshire yesterday afternoon, but has reportedly yet to start the return journey.  

Officials in Istanbul told Sky News there was ‘never a problem from Turkish authorities’ and ‘all permissions have been issued very swiftly’. 

The hold-ups come with hospitals warning they are close to running out of some items, and medical bodies saying doctors could need to make ‘difficult decisions’ between exposing themselves to the virus or ‘letting a patient die on their watch’.  

Trusts have accused ministers of raising the hopes of health staff saying they had ‘bitter experience’ of promised PPE either failing to arrive, or turning out to be either faulty or the wrong kit.  

Michelle van Vuuren, who runs a London-based property company, turned her business into a PPE distributor working with Chinese suppliers last month as the virus began to spread around the world.

After failed attempts to contact NHS procurement services, Miss van Vuuren contacted Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s office on March 20.

She was subsequently passed to the Cabinet Office but her inquiries went ‘into a vacuum’ and were met with only an automated response.

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer faced an angry backlash yesterday after she claimed that people are not being ‘adult’ about PPE supplies. 

Dr Jenny Harries slapped down critics of the government’s efforts to make sure frontline workers have access to the gowns, gloves and masks they need to protect against coronavirus.

She said there needed to be a ‘more adult, and more detailed conversation about PPE supplies’ as she insisted the UK was an ‘international exemplar in preparedness’.

But healthcare chiefssaid they had been ‘sounding the alarm’ on the apparent lack of PPE available in some settings ‘for months’.  

 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk