The most senior civil servant at the Foreign Office has backtracked on his claim that the UK’s failure to participate in the EU’s procurement scheme for medical kit and ventilators was a “political decision”.
Sir Simon McDonald, the permanent under secretary at the department, initially told MPs that ministers had been briefed by the UK’s mission to the EU on “what was on offer” from Brussels – promoting outrage from opposition parties.
His comments directly contradicted previous government statements on the issue, after No 10 blamed the decision not to participate in the emergency scheme to provide gowns, ventilators and other medical equipment, on a “communication problem” in March.
But hours later – in a letter published by the foreign affairs select committee – Sir Simon said: “Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, I inadvertently and wrongly told the committee, that ministers were briefed by UKMIS on the EU’s joint procurement scheme and took a political decision not to participate in it.
He added: “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 communications 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.”
Stewart McDonald, an SNP MP who sits on the foreign affairs committee, however, said: “I’m afraid [Sir Simon’s] letter of clarification to [committee] fails to meet its objective – in fact it raises more questions than it answers. This has longer to run.”
During the session in Westminster on Tuesday afternoon, the Labour MP Chris Bryant asked Sir Simon why the UK had not taken part in the scheme which aims to provide member states with crucial medical equipment to fight covid-19 in the coming weeks.
The senior civil servant said it was a “political decision”, adding that the government’s representation in Brussel’s had “briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer and the decision is known”.
Speaking after Sir Simon’s appearance at the foreign affair’s committee, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told the Downing Street press conference: “As far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme.”
He added: “When we did receive an invitation in the Department for Health it was put up to me to be ask and we joined, so we are now members of that scheme. But as far as I know that scheme has not yet produced a single item of PPE.”
It comes after the government was widely criticised for failing to join the scheme last month when infections of coronavirus were on the rise in the UK, and at the time a government spokesperson said: “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.”
Downing Street had claimed there had been a “mix up” which meant emails from the EU about the procurement scheme were not received and would “consider participating in future procurement schemes”.
The lack of British involvement in the schemes led to claims that it was motivated by Brexiteer ideology in Mr Johnson’s administration – a claim denied by Downing Street.
Naomi Smith, of pro-EU campaign Best for Britain, said: “If it was a political decision not to join Europe-wide schemes to bulk-buy PPE and other essential medical equipment, then the government prioritised its own image over the country’s health.
“That decision has been disastrous. Frontline workers deserve much better. We urge the government to seek participation in future schemes as soon as possible, so we can source the medical supplies Britain’s hospitals and care homes desperately need.”
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