The government has faced criticism for weeks over the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) available to NHS staff.
Hospitals across the country are washing and reusing single-use gowns as supplies reach critically low levels, while it has also been reported that nurses have resorted to wearing bin bags in the absence of adequate equipment.
Home Secretary Priti Patel was criticised (and mocked) for offering a “non apology” for the apparent lack of PPE and Health Secretary Matt Hancock has declined to apologise to NHS staff. Instead he was slammed for saying he’d love to “wave a magic wand and have PPE fall from the sky”.
But according to a report by the Guardian the UK government missed three chances to sign up to the European Union’s procurement scheme to secure protective equipment and ventilators.
The report reads:
European doctors and nurses are preparing to receive the first of €1.5bn (£1.3bn) worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) within days or a maximum of two weeks through a joint procurement scheme involving 25 countries and eight companies, according to internal EU documents.
The EU’s swift work has led to offers of medical equipment, including masks, overalls and goggles, in excess of the number requested, a spokesman for the European commission said.
So why did the UK miss out?
Downing Street originally said that it only failed to join the scheme because of an email miscommunication, but it was revealed at the end of March that British officials in Brussels had attended four meetings where bulk-buying was discussed, according to EU minutes reported by The Guardian. At the time, the government was accused of choosing "Brexit over breathing" in choosing not to participate in the ventilator, but Downing Street stressed that it was down to communication mixup, not politics.
It is now reported that the UK missed three opportunities to buy protective equipment – which appears to contradict No 10’s claim that the confusion was down to a missed email.
In response the Department of Health and Social Care told the Guardian that they are "working round the clock with industry, the NHS, social care providers and the army to ensure the supply of PPE over the coming weeks". They even said that they will consider participating in future EU schemes:
We will continue to work with European countries and others in order to make sure that we can increase the capacity within the NHS, and we will consider participating in future EU joint procurement schemes on the basis of public health requirements at the time.
Meanwhile, a cabinet minister said this week that joining the EU schemes would make no “difference”.
Therese Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, said the government had “sufficient stocks” of PPE... but this goes against accounts we’re hearing from health workers on the front line.
She told LBC radio:
The government has made an assessment that by joining the schemes, it wasn’t going to make any particular difference to the procurement of PPE.
That’s still our basis of whether or not we attended a meeting in February or whether we attended the meeting in March. That’s still the outcome.
It's probably easier to have this outlook if you aren't having to treat people with an infection disease while wearing a bin bag, we suspect.
Coffey's remarks come as a survey by the Doctors Association UK found that only 52 per cent of clinicians carrying out high-risk procedures have the right full sleeve gowns. Nurses have been assured that they can refuse to treat patients if they don't have the right protective equipment, but this is a terrible position to put health staff in.
The news that the government missed three chances to bulk buy PPE with the EU comes as polling reveals that three quarters of the public favour working with the EU to get vital equipment.