UK missed three chances to join EU scheme to bulk-buy PPE

By Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Robert Booth

Britain missed three opportunities to be part of an EU scheme to bulk-buy masks, gowns and gloves and has been absent from key talks about future purchases, the Guardian can reveal, as pressure grows on ministers to protect NHS medics and care workers on the coronavirus frontline.

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. The EU is separately establishing stockpiles within member states, with the first being set up in Romania.

The development comes as anger grows over PPE shortages in Britain, with particular concerns at the weekend over stocks of full-sleeve gowns running out. The gowns are designed to resist droplets which can spread coronavirus and were shown to be highly effective at protecting medics in Italy.

A survey by the Doctors’ Association UK found that only 52% of clinicians carrying out the highest-risk procedures said they had access to the correct full-sleeve gowns, while the Guardian understands that a consignment of at least 100,000 gowns from China had to be rejected when it was found to be substandard. Other consignments thought to be gowns had been mislabelled and were other equipment.

On Monday Dominic Raab, acknowledged PPE shortages – rather than distribution issues only – for the first time.

The foreign secretary, who is deputising for the prime minister as Boris Johnson recovers from Covid-19, told the daily Downing Street briefing that cost was not an issue but admitted to problems with PPE supply due to “a competitive market out there”.

He declined to apologise, saying only that 16m items of equipment were delivered over the bank holiday weekend. “We are straining every sinew to roll them out even further and even faster,” he said.

The UK government has previously said it was unable to join the EU’s procurement schemes as it had not received an email of invitation.

As a result, the government missed out on mass procurement of medical ventilators, and has called on UK manufacturers to build tens of thousands more. But it has also not been involved in two rounds of bulk purchasing of PPE, which were launched by the EU on 28 February and 17 March.

The EU’s procurement of 28 February initially failed due to a lack of interest from suppliers but was relaunched on 15 March, providing additional time for the UK to get involved if it had chosen to do so.

It is understood that officials in Whitehall only realised after those three rounds had been put out to tender that they had not received invitations to join the Joint Procurement Agreement steering committee where the orders are organised.

The UK only took part in its first meeting on joint procurement on 19 March after informing the commission that emails of invitation were being sent to an outdated address, the Guardian has learned.

Despite that belated show of interest, British officials did not attend a separate meeting of health officials on 25 March where participants were invited to spell out their requirements for future purchases to the commission by the next day.

The UK is also not involved in joint procurement of laboratory equipment. The EU is also planning joint procurement of therapies for coronavirus, but the UK is yet to state its position on its involvement.

Shortages of protective equipment have triggered anxiety, alarm and fear among NHS medics and care home staff. The death toll among doctors and nurses continues to rise, with Matt Hancock, the health secretary, saying on Saturday that 19 NHS workers had died. He said it was “impossible” to say when hospitals would have all they needed but added: “We aren’t aware of any links from shortages of PPE to any of these deaths.”

New examples of the shortage of equipment seen by the Guardian include a district nurse in London being issued with just three disposable masks for a week and a care home nurse in Devon claiming her employer was limiting drinks to every four hours to avoid multiple changes of masks and gloves.

The Royal College of Nursing has added to the pressure by advising nurses they should refuse to treat patients with Covid-19 “as a last resort” if they could not access the full PPE they needed.

The EU procurement scheme has not been entirely successful, however. While deliveries of masks, gowns and gloves will be made in tranches over the next two to 18 weeks, the procurement of ventilators will be slow, according to a leaked EU document.

“Companies indicated long delivery times, from 10 to 52 weeks,” the commission warned member states of the £690m purchase.

A spokesman for the commission said: “Some of the equipment, depending on the specifications of the contracts, could be available within a few weeks after member states place orders with the industry. However, taking into account the difficult situation of the market some products require more time to be produced and delivered.

“Overall, for the joint procurements launched for personal protective equipment, the commission has received offers for all categories of equipment requested, some even exceeding the amounts requested. The commission has also drawn up an initial needs assessment and will be working with member states to further detail and prioritise their necessities.”

Donna Kinnair, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “This week, ministers and officials must get a grip and stop putting nursing staff in this dire situation. Too many are phoning me to say things they needed were missing or in short supply. Nursing staff are dying from this virus and too many risks are still being run.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said: “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 pandemic – including working with countries around the globe.

“We are also working with a number of firms to scale up production of existing UK ventilator manufacturers, as well as designing and manufacturing new products from scratch, and procuring thousands more machines from overseas.

“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.”

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