Despite acknowledging Britain urgently needs thousands of life-saving ventilators, Downing Street said it had snubbed an EU offer to allow the UK to join a scheme to bulk buy ventilators.
Other EU countries, including those where shortages of the vital life-savers meant medics making life and death decisions over who to save from breathing difficulties from COVID-19, extended an offer to use bulk-purchasing power to Britain.
Boris Johnson was accused of putting “Brexit over breathing” as his spokesperson said the offer had been turned down as “we are no longer part of the EU.”
Labour MP David Lammy responded: “Why on earth would we not take part in an EU scheme to procure ventilators that we were invited to be part of? I sincerely hope there is a good reason and No 10 is not putting ideology ahead of people’s lives.”
Downing Street’s chaotic U-Turn amid criticism
Then in what appeared to be a baffling U-turn amid growing criticism of the government’s approach as the UK Coronavirus death toll rose again, a Downing Street spokesman contradicted earlier insistence that Britain would not take part because it was an EU initiative – and instead insisted that Britain had missed out on the opportunity due to a “communication problem.”
Earlier in the day, a Number 10 spokesman said: “Well, we are no longer members of the EU,” when asked why the UK was rejecting the offer from the EU, and insisted there would be other efforts to secure vital life-saving ventilators.
Pressed if the decision was related to Brexit ideology, the spokesman said: “No, as I say, this is an area where we’re making our own efforts.”
Then in chaotic messaging just before the afternoon daily Government briefing, a Number 10 spokesperson contradicted the earlier briefing, insisting that: “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.
“As the commission has confirmed, we are eligible to participate in joint procurements during the transition period, following our departure from the EU earlier this year.
“As those four initial procurement schemes had already gone out to tender we were unable to take part in these, but we will consider participating in future procurement schemes on the basis of public health requirements at the time. We 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 and months and will give our NHS and the social care sector everything they need to tackle this outbreak.”
Downing Street also said on Thursday that 8,000 additional ventilators had been ordered by the Government to boost the stock of 8,000 already available for the NHS.
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.
And on Wednesday a key scientist who has been advising the Government, Professor Neil Ferguson, suggested the majority may be needed much sooner than that.
He predicted that intensive care demand would peak “in approximately two to three weeks and then decline thereafter” if the current lockdown measures work as expected.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth added: “We raised this with ministers in the Commons earlier this week and did not receive a satisfactory response.
“With widespread concerns about our ventilator capacity and the urgent need to scale up that capacity, we should be cooperating through international schemes to ensure we get these desperately needed pieces of kit.”
‘Not a time for ideology‘
“This is not a time for ideology and orthodoxy. This is a time to be bold. A time for courage,” the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said in his speech last week, promising to do “whatever it takes” to keep the country safe from the Coronavirus pandemic. But that promise already appeared to be unravelling.
‘We can’t put Brexit over breathing – lives must come first‘
Liberal Democrat Layla Moran insisted doing everything to help the NHS was a “no brainer” and that “lives must come first.”
The Liberal Democrat leadership candidate said she was “deeply shocked and concerned by the government’s decision not to participate”.
She added: “I would do whatever it takes to get more lifesaving equipment, and they need to take the same approach. It’s a no-brainer we can help the NHS and save lives by working together with other countries.
“I wrote to the government a week ago urging them to put pragmatism above ideological considerations and urgently opt into the EU joint procurement scheme. Now I urge them to reconsider their devastating decision to not participate. We can’t put Brexit over breathing; lives must come first.”
Liberal Democrat acting leader Ed Davey added: “There is no reasonable justification for Boris Johnson’s refusal to participate in the EU’s procurement of ventilators.
“Let’s be clear: getting more ventilators to our NHS will save lives. Why won’t the Prime Minister put his Brexit views aside, given this crisis?”
Downing Street also contradicted a claim by Brexiteer billionaire entrepreneur Sir James Dyson that the Government had ordered 10,000 ventilators from his firm.
Sir James emailed Dyson staff to say “we have received an initial order of 10,000 units from the UK Government”. But the Prime Minister’s spokesman said all manufacturers turning their efforts to making ventilators must pass tests from expert clinicians and health regulators before purchases are made.
“New orders are all dependent on machines passing regulatory tests; this is the case with Dyson,” he said. “Their machines must meet the necessary safety and regulatory standards – if they do not, they will not be brought or rolled out to hospitals.”
Today’s developments added to mounting criticism of the government’s slow response to fulfil the urgent need for life-saving equipment. There has been no clarity about where ventilators will come from now the EU’s offer to negotiate a cheaper supply by bulk-buying has been snubbed.
Andrew Raynor, managing director of medical parts manufacturer MEC Medical told BBC Newsnight that “nothing” happened when he first offered to make ventilators, and said they “should have given funding to existing ventilator manufacturers and existing companies like us”.
Steven Mifsud, head of Direct Access told the Nantwich News he had sourced 5,000 ventilators and millions of face masks and personal protective equipment through its United Arab Emirates partners. He registered the supply on the “ventilator challenge” page of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy website, but after five days he had heard nothing and the supplies went elsewhere.
He insisted the only communication he had from the Department of Health was “thank you” and “you are in our system”. In contrasted other countries had responded with requests for the life-saving equipment within hours.
“Time is a luxury that we as a nation do not have,” he added. “This virus does not wait for anyone and every second costs lives. I am incredibly frustrated with the British government and the current mañana attitude.”
On Thursday the largest daily increase in deaths from Coronavirus was also announced. The total now stands at 578, up by 115 on the previous figure. The Department for Health and Social Care also confirmed that 11,658 people have tested positive in the UK.