26 June, 2021

In a blog dated 16 June 2021, Dominic Cummings, until recently British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top adviser but now his most trenchant critic, let slip a morsel of information of considerable interest to students of diplomacy. In the first, panicky months of the Covid-19 pandemic, he writes, when prices of essential medical supplies were spiralling alarmingly across the world, the Department of Health and Social Security had stupidly stuck to the normal rules on overseas procurement of essential medical supplies – value for money and using ships rather than planes for delivery. In late April 2020, he adds, ‘we had only just agreed that Ambassadors could buy PPE without clearance from London’ (emphasis added). It has long been apparent, not least because it has been acknowledged by government in the case of supplies from China and can safely be assumed that it applied to Turkey as well, that British embassies were required to play a lead role in the acquisition of vital medical supplies during the pandemic. But this is the first time I have seen evidence that they had been given such carte blanche in the matter. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s it was ‘bye-bye ambassador’, now it is ‘buy, buy Mr Ambassador!’ It would be interesting to know if similar latitude was given to ambassadors of other countries and, if so, to what extent they were assisted by health attachés, whether so-called or working under some other title. Since it is notorious that the quality of the supplies acquired from abroad by Britain was not always satisfactory, it is to be hoped that the Foreign Office has taken steps to stiffen key embassies in this department.