Brussels Rejects UK's 'Email Mix-Up' Claim About Failure To Join EU Ventilator Scheme

The UK government was present at "several" meetings where cross-Europe efforts to buy medical supplies to tackle coronavirus was discussed.

The EU has cast doubt on claims that an email mix-up was to blame for the UK failing to take part in a Europe-wide scheme for buying ventilators and medical supplies to tackle coronavirus.

Brussels said the UK took part in meetings of the EU’s health security committee where medical supplies and procurement was discussed “several times”.

The UK government also had the opportunity to signal its interest in joining joint procurements at these meetings.

No.10 has blamed an “internal communication problem” for missing the deadline to join four EU joint procurement schemes for equipment to tackle coronavirus.

It is understood that officials believe they did not receive an email invitation to join the schemes in time to meet the deadline.

A nurse checking a ventilator in a room of the intensive care unit in Germany
A nurse checking a ventilator in a room of the intensive care unit in Germany
picture alliance via Getty Images

But Stefan De Keersmaecker, European Commission spokesperson for health, told a daily press briefing: “First, the UK is a signatory of the joint procurement agreements and is therefore welcome to participate in any joint procurement launched under the agreement during this transition period.

“The possibility to launch and take part in EU procurement procedures, but also 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, also via the early warning response system.

“Finally the commission wants to stress again as it has already done in the past that the UK is most welcome to join any future procurements launched under the joint procurement agreement, during the transition period.”

Earlier, Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said: “There was an initial communication problem which meant that we didn’t receive the invitation to take part in the first four of the joint procurement schemes in time.

“In short, the tenders had already gone out by the time it became known to us that there was an invitation saying we could take part.

“But we could look to take part in future procurement programmes.”

What do ventilators do?

Ventilators are hospital bedside machines that help patients who are struggling to breathe on their own by pumping oxygen into their lungs.

Tubes are inserted through the windpipe that oxygen into the lungs and clear out carbon dioxide.

Why are they important for coronavirus patients?

Covid-19 is a respiratory disease – it attacks the lungs and in some cases causes breathing problems.

The number of hospital patients needing respirators has exploded since the coronavirus pandemic began.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said around 80% of people with Covid-19 recover without needing specialist treatment, but one in six people become seriously ill and develop difficulty breathing.

The prime minister’s spokesperson said there had been contact between the UK and EU and the government would “certainly consider taking part” in any schemes “based on health requirements at the time”.

Downing Street said on Thursday that 8,000 additional ventilators had been ordered by the government to boost the stock of 8,000 already available to the health service.

But with Covid-19′s peak expected to strike the UK in around three weeks, there were concerns hospitals will not have the numbers required in time.

Johnson had a call with businesses involved in the manufacture of further ventilators on Thursday evening, where he was updated on how soon more could be produced.

Any new companies offering to make ventilators would have to have their prototype checked, Downing Street said.

The PM’s spokesperson said: “There is a real cross-government effort going on to get these ventilators online as soon as possible.

“The PM spoke with industry again last night. We are doing all we can to make progress.”

On Johnson’s efforts with industry, he added: “It was following up on his original call to action. It is right to stress that it was a telephone call.

“It was to get a progress report and the PM is very clear on the importance of making progress on this.

“It is the subject of a regular stock-take at the ‘war cabinet’ meetings to ensure we are doing all we can to remove any obstacles to get the ventilators online.”