The European commission has dismissed claims from Dominic Raab that the UK did not receive an invitation to join EU procurement schemes for medical kit to combat coronavirus because Brussels used an obsolete email address.
A commission official said the UK was not included on the original email list because it had already left the EU, but added there had been “ample opportunity” for the British government to join four schemes to bulk-buy medical supplies launched earlier this year.
The UK has since decided to join an EU procurement scheme to obtain intensive care medicines, such as antibiotics and anaesthetics, the Guardian has learned.
The row was reignited after the British foreign secretary wrote to the chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, Tom Tugendhat, in response to questions about the government’s response to EU procurement schemes.
Raab said “we understand from the commission” that EU officials had used out-of-date email addresses to send an invitation. “Unfortunately those email addresses no longer existed, given changes in departmental structures (eg DH becoming DHSC) and the government IT network (end of gsi addresses) since 2016.”
The EU official responded: “The UK was informed – as all other countries – of the joint procurement processes at the health security committee.”
British officials attended four meetings of the EU’s health security committee (HSC), on 31 January, 4 February, 2 March and 13 March, where the first wave of procurement schemes were discussed, according to official minutes seen by the Guardian.
After it emerged the UK had missed deadlines to join four EU procurement schemes, the UK increased its attendance at the EU’s HSC meetings.
In his letter to Tugendhat, which was published last week, Raab said there had been “no explicit discussion at these [HSC] meetings of whether the UK would be eligible to participate”. He also said ministers had not been briefed ahead of the schemes being launched.
The Foreign Office’s most senior official, Sir Simon McDonald, said the UK had taken a political decision not to join and that “the UK missions in Brussels briefed ministers about what was available” – but later retracted his testimony. McDonald was subsequently asked to stand down “at the request” of Boris Johnson, following the prime minister’s decision to merge the Department for International Development with the FCO.
EU procurement schemes are intended to help governments get better prices for medical equipment, but deliveries have lagged behind the health crisis peak. Some member states, such as Latvia and Luxembourg, have received supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), but others are still waiting, for instance Bulgaria, which expects to receive 55 ventilators by the end of this month.
Documents obtained by the Guardian under a freedom of information request show civil servants at the Department of Health and Social Care reacted positively when it was confirmed that forms of cooperation with the EU could continue after Brexit.
On 30 January 2020 – the eve of Brexit day – Brussels confirmed the UK would continue to have access to the Epidemic Intelligence Information System, an online platform where public health experts around the world share knowledge about health threats.
Clara Swinson, the DHSC’s director general of global health, described that as “very helpful”, adding it was “also very good” that the UK had taken part in a call of the EU’s health security committee.
In a later email to the HSC secretariat, she wrote the UK “greatly appreciates the opportunity to share information with yourselves and the member states and coordinate our response”.