A strange and worrisome thing happened in the British government yesterday. Sorry, that’s not a particularly helpful sentence. These days saying that a strange and worrisome thing happened in the British government is a bit like saying that you saw dog crap in the park, that there was an SNPbad story in the Scottish media, or that British nationalists on social media found something to feel victimised by. We’ve come to expect the Conservative government in Westminster to act like a bunch of incompetent mendacious charlatans. It’s pretty much their USP.
Yesterday, a senior civil servant in the Foreign Office, Simon McDonald, told a Westminster parliamentary committee that the UK had made a “political decision” to withdraw from the EU joint procurement programme. This is an EU scheme which allows participating countries to act together as bulk purchasers of medical equipment and supplies. The size of the EU states combined means that they can secure better deals and lower prices from suppliers, and can force their way to the head of the queue in times of shortage. Despite the UK leaving the EU at the end of January, the EU was – and still is – willing to allow the UK to participate. Simon McDonald claimed that the UK had left the scheme because of a deliberate policy decision, leaving the British government open to accusations that it was putting Brexit ideology before saving lives. And you’d think that as a senior mandarin in the Foreign Office that he’d know what had happened in negotiations with the EU.
According to reports in the press, the UK was both invited to participate in meetings with EU states about co-ordinating their equipment and supplies purchasing in response to the virus. The first of these meetings took place in January. On 31 January, the EU held a meeting about the joint procurement of PPE. You know, that PPE that we’re currently being told that there is a shortage of, and NHS staff are being told to recycle that which they have. Even though the UK had officially left the EU by then, the UK still participated in a further three meetings in February and March. On 15 March, the president of the Eu Commission Ursula von der Leyen publicly announced the procurement scheme, and said that as the UK was still in the Brexit transition period it was eligible to participate. A couple of days later Matt Hancock confirmed that the UK had been invited to participate and that it was engaging with the EU on the issue. All of which is terribly grown up and responsible, the sort of way you’d hope a government would behave during a global crisis.
But of course this is the UK, and we’re led by a bunch of vile liars who are consumed by their personal ambitions. On 26th March a spokesperson for Downing Street announced that the UK would not be participating in the EU procurement scheme because we’ve already left the EU and we’re special and British. Only proper union flag themed ventilators will suffice for Great British hospitals, and if the UK can’t package its ventilators the way that Tesco packages its vegetables, true blue Brits should not be interested. This government would far rather that we all turn true blue in the face because we’re struggling to breathe than cooperate with this dastardly Europeans with their bulk purchasing.
Naturally this didn’t go down well, so within a couple of days there was the very loud sound of reverse screeching. Michael Gove, because he’s the go-to guy whenever the British government wants to slime its way out of a problem, told the press that the UK had indeed been eager to participate, but that there had been a “communication problem” and the UK never got an official invitation to participate. The dog had eaten the message. The email had ended up in the spam folder. The letter had got lost in the post. It was all terribly unfortunate, but there you go. It’s the kind of excuse that a 12 year old would be embarrassed to come out with as they attempted to explain why they’d not done their homework.
That was the line until Simon McDonald gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday. A clearly uncomfortable Simon told the committee that foreign office officials had briefed UK government ministers about what was on offer from the EU, and said that ministers had made a political decision not to participate. This was a man who obviously knew that he was contradicting the line put out by UK government ministers. You can see the exchange here
Later in the day Matt Hancock denied that any such decision had been made at all. Instead we saw an extraordinary “letter of clarification” from Simon McDonald. It’s peculiar all by itself that he had to issue a letter of clarification about a comment that he made that was perfectly clear already. The letter reads like one of those self-denunciations made by North Korean generals just before they’re taken out and shot. You can read the letter here
The letter is phrased in tortured sentences in such a way that it’s clear that it was drafted in a process of arm twisting. Simon McDonald’s remarks to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee had created a political problem for the government by directly contradicting them. He was going to have to save their skin. The letter tells us that the UK did not receive an invitation in time, yet we already know that the UK was involved in discussions and negotiations and knew full well that the procurement scheme was taking place. Yet now we’re expected to believe that the British government isn’t going to participate because it didn’t get the official invitation. It’s a bit like not going to your best friend’s wedding, the planning of which you were fully involved with, because the fancy invite didn’t arrive in the post even though your friend had told you over the phone that of course you were still invited.
This means that the official line from the British government is not that they missed out on much needed ventilators and PPE because of swivel eyed Brexity reasons. Oh no. How very dare you for even suggesting such a narrow minded, ideologically driven, and just plain nasty idea. What are you? Iain Duncan Smith? You sound exactly like one of those Conservative MPs who was quite prepared to trash the economy and – in the words of Boris Johnson – “fuck business” in order to pursue an ideologically pure Brexit. You should consider yourself well and truly shamed. Because unlike a Conservative MP you probably do indeed have a fully functioning sense of shame. How dare you suggest such a thing. It’s only Conservative MPs who are allowed to suggest the morally bankrupt.
No. The real reason is far more reassuring. Well, that is if you consider it reassuring to be told when you’re in a plane that’s lost all power and is plunging towards the earth where it’s going to explode in a ball of flames that you’re in your current predicament because the pilot is a clueless idiot and not because he’s suicidal and intent on taking you down with him. We’re now told that the British government missed out in participating in the EU joint procurement programme because they’re a bunch of useless incompetents who can’t manage to do the kind of basic office admin tasks that are usually given to a school kid on work experience. This admission is supposed to fill us with confidence in the abilities of the Conservative government to handle the current crisis. Matt Hancock trusts that you’re feeling far more assured now.
Either way, this entire episode stinks. Either the email was indeed lost, in which case the British government is guilty of gross incompetence during a global emergency in which thousands of people are dying. And the lost email excuse does not explain why the UK was still refusing to participate in the EU procurement scheme even though the EU made it clear that the offer was still open after Michael Gove’s oops the dog ate my homework moment. Alternatively this is a story which was entirely invented in order to cover the arses of government ministers who are hell bent on pursusing Brexit at any cost – even the cost of our lives. And let us not forget that Number 10 is still insisting that despite the crashing economy and the global disaster under no circumstances will it consider asking the EU for an extension to the transition period. It’s either incompetence or malignity, but the end result is NHS staff and care workers being deprived of the vital equipment that they need to save lives and to keep themselves safe. But hey, they’re getting a round of applause and a wee badge.
All by itself this is a scandal of enormous proportions, and that’s before we even throw the discredited herd immunity policy, Boris Johnson being missing in action, the tardiness of the UK’s reponse, the failure to test and trace, and everything else into the mix. This is a government which was offered help from the EU at a time when thousands of people were dying, which refused that help for its own narrow political reasons, and then lied to cover it up. In any normal country this wouldn’t merely result in ministerial resignations, it would result in prosecutions for criminal negligence.
The UK has missed the boat on this round of procurement, but on Friday the EU announced that the UK was more than welcome to join a future round. The UK has yet to respond. People are still dying.
And finally, because we could all do with some cheering up during these difficult times…
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