Boris Johnson blames 'communication error' for missing EU coronavirus ventilators scheme

Downing Street previously said the UK wouldn't take part in the Brussels procurement schemes 'because we are no longer members of the EU'.

Boris Johnson in one of his daily addresses to the nation on the coronavirus outbreak.
Boris Johnson in one of his daily addresses to the nation on the coronavirus outbreak. Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe

Boris Johnson was accused of putting Brexit above people’s lives on Thursday  after blaming a communication error for failing to take part in EU initiatives to buy ventilators to fight the coronavirus pandemic.  

Asked why the UK had ignored the four EU joint procurement schemes,which look to leverage the EU’s heft to secure life-saving medical equipment more quickly and cheaply, the prime minister’s spokesman said, “because we are no longer members of the EU.”

"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,” a government spokesman said later, “We will consider participating in future procurement schemes.” 

An email was either missed or never received by the UK. Downing Street has instead put out a call to tender for British firms to manufacture ventilators

A European Commission spokesman said, “If the UK wants to join in a future procurement scheme they are most welcome to join. They were also most welcome to join in the first four.”

Although Britain left the EU on January 31, its membership of the single market and customs union is preserved until the end of the year as part of the Brexit transition period. The UK can take part in EU joint procurement schemes during the transition period.  

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran accused the Tory government of putting ideology before people’s lives. 

“We can’t put Brexit over breathing; lives must come first,” she said. 

Jon Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said, “With widespread concerns about our ventilator capacity and the urgent need to scale-up that capacity, we should be co-operating through international schemes to ensure we get these desperately needed pieces of kit."

“We're doing our own work on ventilators, and we've had a very strong response from business,” the prime minister’s spokesman said. He said the UK had 8,000 ventilators with 8,000 to become available in the coming months. 10,000 ventilators are expected to be made by Dyson. 

The UK is participating in the EU’s Early Warning and Response System, which shares data on member state’s measures against coronavirus. It is also reporting on Covid-19 to The European Surveillance System.

It has also taken part in meetings of the EU Health Security Committee, which includes non-EU countries such as Switzerland, but no longer attends meetings of EU health ministers in Brussels.  

The UK activated the EU’s civil protection mechanism to help repatriate UK and EU citizens stranded on the Grand Princess cruise ship from Yokohama, Japan. Britain also repatriated UK and EU citizens from Peru through the mechanism, which coordinates offers of assistance between participating states.