Much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) for the NHS finally arrived at Istanbul airport on Tuesday night – two days after ministers first promised it would arrive in the UK and amid mounting recriminations over the embarrassing delays.
Ministers promised the shipment, which is supposed to include 400,000 protective gowns, would arrive in the UK on Sunday and again on Monday, but the supplies only started clearing Turkish customs late on Tuesday.
It was not immediately clear if the medical equipment amounted to all the 84 tonnes ordered. Only one RAF plane out of a total transport of three cargo carriers was waiting on the tarmac at Istanbul to pick up the kit.
The earliest the first shipment could arrive would be the early hours of Wednesday. Two more planes remained at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire ready to fly to Turkey if the remaining supplies become available.
Turkey insisted that it was not responsible for the hold-ups, with sources adding that some export permissions were sought by the UK as late as Monday – after UK ministers had made repeated public statements saying the shipment was imminent.
Ümit Yalçın, Turkey’s ambassador to the UK, said: “Turkey did not delay anything. There is no responsibility for the Turkish government for the delay of this shipment. Whenever we received any request for help, we did our best to allow this shipment to go ahead.”
One Whitehall source claimed that while health officials had placed the order, it had not been appreciated that – like many other countries – Turkey had placed extra restrictions on the export of medical equipment as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
Ministers have been giving what turned out to be false assurances that the equipment was due to arrive in the UK imminently since the weekend, prompting complaints from NHS bosses that they were inflating public hopes at a time when PPE shortages in hospitals is acute. The health service is currently using 150,000 gowns a day.
On Saturday, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary announced at the daily Downing Street press conference that the consignment would arrive the following day, even though necessary clearances had not been sought.
On Sunday, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said he hoped the shipment would arrive the next day. That promise was tentatively repeated by Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, on Monday morning. “I don’t want to start making more and more promises, but I understand that flight will take off this afternoon and those [gowns] will be delivered,” Dowden said.Advertisement
But on Tuesday, the government finally adopted a more cautious tone. Simon Clarke, the local government minister, said the consignment would be in the UK “in the next few days”.
Such was the UK’s desperation to expedite the order that one RAF plane, an Atlas A400M transport, was sent to Istanbul late on Monday in a desperate attempt to apply pressure on Turkey to hasten the export approval process.
Turkey has already dispatched two other consignments of PPE to the UK this year. Earlier in April 250,000 items of PPE arrived in the UK from the country, including 100,000 protective gowns.
But Ankara has been accused of holding up exports to other European countries, including to Italy, Spain and Belgium this month, often leading to high-level diplomatic intervention to secure the supply.
Downing Street blamed an “unprecedented demand for PPE globally” for some of the difficulties faced by the UK and other countries. “There are challenges in the supply of PPE, there have been problems in ensuring that PPE gets to the right place at the right time,” the prime minister’s spokesman acknowledged.