Britain only made a formal request to Turkey over a consignment of personal protective equipment on Sunday 19 April – the day after a cabinet minister announced the “very significant additional shipment” was already heading to the UK, Turkish sources have told Sky News.
Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, said at the daily Downing Street press briefing on Saturday that 84 tonnes of the gear, including 400,000 urgently-needed clinical gowns, would arrive in the UK from Turkey the following day.
It failed to materialise, but no explanation for the delay was given.
In fact two sources have told Sky News that no formal request for the equipment was made to the Turkish authorities until Sunday.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said at the government’s daily briefing on Sunday that he “hoped” the delivery would arrive the next day.
That did not happen either.
A Royal Air Force transport plane finally left an airbase in Oxfordshire to fly to Turkey on Monday afternoon to pick up the personal protective equipment (PPE).
But it was still not clear when any of the 84-tonne shipment would be ready to be loaded onto the aircraft and flown back – a journey that could be completed by Tuesday morning.
A defence source said the plane might just be “pre-positioning” in Turkey to be able to transport the material once it does show up.
The delay has caused embarrassment for the government, which is already under significant pressure because of a shortage of gowns and other protective gear worn by frontline staff as they treat patients with coronavirus.
A government source said on Monday night that a commercial supplier in Turkey had been lined up to deliver the material over the weekend but something went wrong so officials were forced to ask the Turkish government for help.
A second UK source said the speed of manufacturing and paperwork may be causing the delays. Another factor could be the need to check goods meet safety and quality standards.
On the Turkish side, two sources said a formal request from the UK related to the PPE consignment was not made until Sunday and the Turkish authorities immediately assisted.
The sources also revealed that the manufacturer of the goods bound for the UK only submitted a request to the Turkish ministry of health on Monday for permission to export the gear.
Since last month, such permission is needed for PPE exports.
“The Turkish state is not responsible for any delay. We are ready to help in any way we can,” one source said.
The second source said: “There was never a problem from the Turkish authorities, on the contrary all permissions have been issued very swiftly.”
The source added: “It’s ridiculous to think that a country last week was helping the UK by donation and this week it is preventing (the export of PPE).”
Ankara gifted 250,000 pieces of personal protective equipment – 14 tonnes – to Britain over the Easter weekend.
With a round trip of about 12 hours, the RAF aircraft that has flown to Turkey could arrive back in the UK by early on Tuesday morning if it is able to load up straight away.
But that appears unlikely. Instead it could face a wait on the tarmac.
A second military plane is scheduled to fly to Turkey early on Tuesday to help bring back the PPE and a third could travel later in the morning, according to the defence source.
Those timings could slip or the number of flights be reduced depending upon how much can be fitted onto the aircraft.
The chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across healthcare, said delays on the shipment from Turkey “makes a difficult situation worse”.
Niall Dickson said: “It would have been better had the government not made the announcement in the first place.”