BREXIT UPDATE 58:  BREXIT AND CORONAVIRUS

What is happening about Brexit during the Coronavirus crisis?  It might have seemed that Brexit would be put on hold in the face of such a serious pandemic.   But negotiations are still continuing by video-conferencing; the UK government still insists that it will not ask for an extension of the transition period beyond December 31 this year; and the “hard Brexit” ideology of the nationalistic, far-right Conservative government is affecting its handling of the pandemic – as is illustrated by a scandal that broke out last week (after first emerging last month) in relation to a joint EU Procurement scheme for the bulk-buying of medical equipment.

The UK signed up to the EU’S Joint Procurement Agreement in 2014; it had been set up a few years earlier in response to the H1N1 – “swine flu” – crisis.  Under the terms of the transition period that the UK entered on January 31, the UK has a right to join in the scheme, and in March was invited to participate in four EU joint procurement schemes, including ventilators and PPE (Protective Personal Equipment).[1]

The current row began on the morning of Thursday, March 26, when a spokesman for Boris Johnson said that the UK would not be participating in the scheme because “we are no longer members of the EU”, adding that

“we are conducting our own work on ventilators and we’ve had a very strong response from business, and we’ve also procured ventilators from the private sector in the UK and from international manufacturers.”

When asked if the reason for the decision was Brexit, the spokesman denied this, saying “This is an area where we’re making our own efforts”.

The statement sparked an outcry among MPs.  The Shadow Health Secretary, Jon Ashworth, said:

“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”.

And the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran accused the government of “putting Brexit before breathing”.[2]

Following the criticisms, the government message changed.  In the afternoon of the same day, March 26, Downing Street issued a statement claiming that the reason for the UK government’s non-participation in the schemes was that it did not receive the emailed invitation:

“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 European 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”.[3]

On March 27, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, were both diagnosed with coronavirus and went into self-isolation.  Hancock recovered at home within a week, but national and world attention focused on the health of Johnson, who was taken into hospital on April 5 and ended up in intensive care (he had boasted of visiting a hospital and shaking hands “with everyone”, including Coronavirus patients[4]).  Now that he is out of intensive and hospital care and recovering at the Prime Minister’s country home, Chequers, the row that began on March 26 has flared up again.

Last Tuesday (April 21), the top civil servant in the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald — his official title is Permanent Under-Secretary and Head of Diplomatic Service, Foreign and Commonwealth Office — told a Foreign Office Select Committee that the UK’s exclusion from the EU’s procurement scheme was a “political decision”.   The conversation ran as follows:

“CHRIS BRYANT (a Labour MP on the Select Committee panel):  And a final question from me: why, oh why, oh why, were we not involved in EU procurement?

MCDONALD: (clearly embarrassed):  Um….er….we left the European Union on the 31st of January.

BRYANT:  No, we had every right to take part.  We were invited to take part.  Apparently we missed the emails or forgot the emails or didn’t ask for emails.  Five of the meetings we didn’t attend, but lots of the other meetings we did attend.  It’s not about leaving the European Union.

MCDONALD:  All I can say is: as a matter of fact, we have not taken part.

TOM TUGENDHAT (the chair of the Select Committee):  Maybe I could ask Sir Simon:  what was your policy advice on it?  Or was it a political decision?

MCDONALD:  It was a political decision.  The mission – UKMIS, rather, to be correct – in Brussels briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer; and the decision is known.”[5]

Another outcry followed. When the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was asked that same day, Tuesday April 21, at Downing Street’s daily COVID-19 press briefing, about Sir Simon McDonald’s allegation, a clearly flustered and incoherent Hancock replied that the UK was in fact participating in the scheme “in an associate way”:

“I haven’t seen that exchange, but I have spoken to the Foreign Secretary [Dominic Raab], and as far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme.  The invitation, when it came into the Department of Health – and I know there has been debate about whether it was sent to the wrong email address initially – to participate in this scheme in an associate way, because we are not members of the EU, came to me for decision, and I said yes.”

In the evening of the same day, Tuesday April 21, in a letter to Tom Tugendhat, Sir Simon McDonald, reverting to the email excuse, recanted the claims he had made that morning:

“Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, I inadvertently and wrongly told the Committee that Ministers were briefed by UKMIS on the EU’s joint Procurement Agreement scheme and took a political decision not to participate in it.  This is incorrect.  Ministers were not briefed by our mission in Brussels about the scheme and a political decision was not taken on whether or not to participate.”

“The facts of the situation are as previously set out.  Owing to an initial communication problem, the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join in four joint COVID EU procurement schemes.  As those four initial schemes had already gone out to tender we were unable to take part.”[6]

Unsurprisingly, Chris Bryant commented:  “It’s all nonsense – he’s been leant on.  The whole thing stinks of people trying to cover their tracks”.[7]

The BBC reported on April 22 that it had been told by a European Commission official “that the UK had not joined any of the four EU procurement schemes on an ‘associate’ basis, ‘as the deadlines have well passed now and indeed the process is well under way’”.[8]  As for the “missed email” excuse (which was always unbelievable), a European Commission spokesman told reporters in Brussels:

“The EU Commission already announced on 31 January that it could help member states with organisation of such joint procurement schemes; and this idea of joint procurement and reporting on the state of the medical supplies of the member states was a recurring topic of the agenda of the Health and Security Committee meetings.  The UK was, as all other members of the Health and Security Committee meetings, aware of the work that was ongoing and had ample opportunity to express its wish to participate in a joint procurement if it wanted to do so.  As to why it did not participate, this is obviously something on which we cannot comment.”[9]

The left-wing Skwawkbox website comments:

“Front-line NHS staff continue to be exposed to the virus daily because of shortages of PPE – the NHS has now completely run out of some types of vital protective wear.  More than 100 health workers have now died from the virus – while patients will also have become infected, according to health experts, while being treated by ‘asymptomatic’ staff without the recommended PPE.”[10]

The first round of the post-Brexit, transition phase negotiations took place in early March, with negotiators meeting face to face but not shaking hands.  The talks ended, according to the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, with “grave” and “serious” differences in relation to fair competition – known as the “level playing field” and involving issues such as workers’ rights and environmental protections  (see Brexit Update 57) – fishing rights and cooperation over crime.  Barnier said the UK had informed him that “they do not wish formally to commit to continuing to apply the European convention on human rights, nor do they wish to permit the European court of justice to play its full role in interpreting EU law”.[11]

The second round, scheduled for mid-March, was postponed because of the difficulties in arranging video-conferencing.  But last week, the second round took place by video-conference, starting on April 15 and ending on Friday (April 24).  The two sides remain far apart, according to Michel Barnier.  He described the talks as “disappointing”, accused the UK of dragging its feet and commented: “The UK cannot refuse to extend the transition and at the same time slow down discussion on important issues”.[12]  More talks are scheduled for May and June.

Despite these problems and despite the Coronavirus crisis, the UK government is insisting that it will not seek an extension to the transition period, which ends on December 31 this year.[13] There are fears of a no-deal Brexit on top of the pandemic.  As I wrote in Brexit Update 57:  “if an extension is not requested by July 1, it will not be granted by the EU”.

Hopes have been expressed that the Coronavirus crisis could lead to a new era of international cooperation.[14]   Sadly, in relation at least to the UK government so far, the signs are not promising.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/22/coronavirus-what-is-eu-medical-equipment-scheme-why-did-uk-opt-out

[2] https://www.euractiv.com/section/coronavirus/news/uk-putting-brexit-over-breathing-as-johnson-opts-out-of-eu-covid-scheme/

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52052694

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2020/mar/27/i-shook-hands-with-everybody-says-boris-johnson-weeks-before-coronavirus-diagnosis-video

[5] https://skwawkbox.org/2020/04/22/watch-senior-foreign-office-official-admits-political-decision-not-comms-problems-led-to-uk-rejecting-eu-ppe-ventilator-offer/

[6] https://www.itv.com/news/2020-04-21/coronavirus-foreign-office-top-civil-servant-decision-not-to-participate-in-eu-medical-schemes-was-political/

[7] https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/matt-hancock-sir-simon-mcdonald-coronavirus-eu-ppe-ventilator-schemes-1-6617623

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52377087

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/22/eu-turns-up-pressure-on-matt-hancock-over-covid-19-ppe-scheme

[10] https://skwawkbox.org/2020/04/22/watch-senior-foreign-office-official-admits-political-decision-not-comms-problems-led-to-uk-rejecting-eu-ppe-ventilator-offer/

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/mar/05/barnier-warns-of-grave-differences-between-eu-and-uk-in-trade-talks

[12] https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/24/watch-live-eu-negotiator-michel-barnier-gives-update-on-post-brexit-talks-with-uk

[13] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52313042

[14] See, for instance, the viral poem “And the people stayed home”: https://www.ttbook.org/interview/viral-poem-virus-time