Coronavirus: Boris Johnson accused of risking lives by refusing to join EU scheme to buy key equipment

Jon Stone
A medical worker in protective gear tends to a Covid-19 patient at a hospital in Rome, during the country's lockdown: AFP via Getty Images

Boris Johnson has been accused of letting “Brexit ideology dictate his approach to Coronavirus” after the government refused to take part in an EU scheme to procure much-needed medical equipment.

European countries have banded together collectively to procure bulk orders of ventilators and personal protective equipment, with the first phase now having secured “offers of considerable scale on shortest notice”.

The UK was invited to take part in the scheme, which is leveraging the 500 million-person single market’s huge buying power to secure faster and cheaper orders with less admin at a time of extreme global demand.

But UK officials confirmed on Wednesday that Britain would not be taking part in the scheme, after previously having said the government would decide which way to go.

The prime minister was questioned about the availability of equipment in parliament on Wednesday and said orders were being delivered to UK hospitals where doctors have been warning of a shortage.

Dr Rinesh Parmar, chair of the Doctors’ Association UK, yesterday described the situation as “travesty” and said “the government hasn’t kept its side of the bargain with NHS staff by not having enough [personal protective equipment] available to safeguard the health of doctors and nurses”.

Unions on Wednesday also warned there was a need for more equipment in the social care sector, where workers are looking after vulnerable elderly people most at risk from Covid-19.

“Care workers and their employers have huge concerns about getting their hands on the equipment they need,” said Unison assistant general secretary Christina McAnea.

“It’s too easy for staff to fall through the net given councils are dealing with many different care providers.

“Supplies for the NHS have rightly been given a lot of attention. But any shortages in social care are equally crucial. Solving this problem could help reassure thousands of care staff that they’re not putting themselves or the people they look after at risk.”

Boris Johnson was asked about medical equipment shortages at PMQs (Reuters TV)

The first order placed by the EU, which will go to 25 of the 27 member states, covers “masks type 2 and 3, gloves, goggles, face-shields, surgical masks and overalls” – all of which are needed in the UK. Britain was invited to participate as it is still in the Brexit transition period and so is still being treated like a member state.

Ed Davey, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats told The Independent: “Reports that the UK were offered the opportunity to take part in this scheme and refused are deeply disturbing.

“The Coronavirus knows no borders. It is a pandemic. International solidarity is crucial to protecting the UK. If working with the EU means we can get access to more protective equipment any sensible government would jump at the chance.

“The PM must not let Brexit ideology dictate his approach to Coronavirus. People’s lives must come first.”

Asked if the UK was taking part in EU procurement schemes, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “I think the short answer to that is no. In relation to ventilators we have been undertaking extensive efforts, securing ventilators from private hospitals and working with industry on a response to provide more equipment.”

Commenting on the first order of the EU scheme, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “All over the world, there’s right now a tremendous need for protective clothing and medical equipment. It is therefore a success that the Joint European Procurement Initiative has been able to secure on the world market concrete offers of considerable scale on shortest notice.

“This is EU solidarity in action. It shows that being part of the Union pays off. This material should soon provide considerable relief in Italy, Spain and in 23 more member states.”

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