Dominic Raab has blamed the EU for a defunct email address being used offering the UK a chance to join a scheme to secure supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).
The foreign secretary told MPs that the correct details had been provided but information on the schemes aimed at securing PPE including gloves, overalls, goggles and masks – as well as schemes on ventilators and laboratory equipment – which had gone out to tender in February and March was sent to the outdated addresses.
He suggested that a failure by EU officials to update their records may have been to blame for the situation.
In a letter to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, he said: ‘The relevant EU committee, the Joint Procurement Agreement Steering Committee (JPASC), was relaunched by the European Commission in September 2019, after three years of not meeting.
‘The UK provided up-to-date contact details for the UK representatives to the JPASC in September 2019.
‘Despite this, however, we understand from the commission that the UK contact details on their circulation list for issues relevant to joint procurements at the time of the Covid-19 outbreak were still those of the previous UK representatives, i.e. those who had last attended JPSAC in 2016.’
Raab said ‘unfortunately those email addresses no longer existed’ due to changes in departmental structures and government IT systems.
The foreign secretary said ministers had not been briefed on the schemes, despite health secretary Matt Hancock saying the government was engaging in an invitation it had received, a week before the prime minister dismissed the proposal.
There had been discussions about joint procurement programmes at EU health ministers’ meetings in February and March and a meeting of EU leaders on March 10 – but the UK was not invited as Brexit had happened and it was no longer a member state.
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At meetings of the EU Health Security Committee between January and March – which UK officials did attend – there were ‘discussions on the supply of medical equipment and on possible EU joint procurement schemes’.
But there was ‘no explicit discussion’ of whether the UK could take part, Raab claimed.
The first JPASC meeting which UK officials were invited to attend was on March 19, and then on March 20 the European Commission confirmed the UK was eligible to take part in joint procurements during the transition period.
But it was unable to take part in existing procurement schemes, including on PPE, because they had already gone out to tender.
The UK has expressed an interest in taking part in schemes to supply medical products for intensive care patients and a possible scheme on ‘investigational therapeutics’, Raab said.
‘We will consider participating in other future EU schemes on a case-by-case basis, taking into account our health requirements, including any schemes on PPE.’
In April a senior civil servant claimed that the government had made a ‘political’ decision not to join the schemes, comments he was later told to withdraw.