A few weeks ago, the EU announced that it would be ordering large quantities of ventilators and other medical equipment under its joint procurement scheme. This initiative allows participating countries to use their combined bargaining power to bulk buy medical supplies at a lower cost. As a result, face masks, protective overalls and other life-saving equipment will start being distributed to hospitals and care homes across Europe in as little as two weeks. This is a fantastic example of European solidarity, showing how working together benefits us all.
Sadly though, after four rounds of procurement already, none of this equipment will be making it to the UK. That’s because the Government failed to opt into this pan-European scheme, despite have been offered the opportunity to by the EU.
I first wrote to the health secretary Matt Hancock to raise this issue last week, urging the government to put ideology to one side and urgently opt into the initiative before the deadline passed. Every day we are seeing more stories of NHS staff facing chronic shortage of protective equipment and ventilators. It seemed like a no-brainer that the UK should participate.
My request was initially met with a deafening silence. Then the government then claimed it wouldn’t be taking part because we’re no longer members of the EU. But that simply didn’t wash. The EU has confirmed repeatedly that the UK was eligible to join. And when we’re facing a crisis like Coronavirus, people don’t care about political dogma. They rightly just want to see the government do whatever it takes to get the lifesaving equipment our NHS needs.
So yesterday, I put out an urgent call, which was picked up across the media: ‘we can’t put Brexit over breathing; lives must come first.’
Suddenly the government changed tack. The new excuse was that the government had missed the deadline because there had been a mix up with emails. It was the political equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”.
I find it hard to believe that this really was a mess-up over conspiracy, but the most important thing now is that the government has agreed it will consider taking part in future rounds of the EU’s procurement scheme. I hope they actually follow through and do it.
This is a major victory for common sense and for all those who backed my call for the government to reconsider its approach. This scheme could not only help us secure crucial ventilators and protective equipment for NHS staff. It could also allow the UK to jointly purchase supplies of vaccines and antiviral drugs used to treat coronavirus, if and when they become available.
I will now be holding the government’s feet to the fire on this, and checking to see that ministers really have contacted the EU to declare their willingness to opt in. I also want to see the government cooperating more closely with the EU more broadly in combating the threat posed by Coronavirus, for example by taking part in EU research programmes into a vaccine and attending joint summits of health ministers.
This is no time for political posturing or turning our backs on our neighbours. We will only beat the threat posed by COVID-19 by working together with our friends and partners in Europe and around the world.