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A top UK civil servant has made an astonishing “clarification” after contradicting the government over its decision not to take part in European Union schemes to secure equipment to combat coronavirus.
Sir Simon McDonald, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s permanent under-secretary, said not taking part in a procurement scheme for ventilators with EU countries was “a political decision”.
But hours later, Sir Simon backtracked and wrote in a letter to say that he was “incorrect” to suggest the decision was “political”.
“The facts of the decision are as previously set out,” the civil servant said.
Sir Simon, speaking to MPs at a select committee hearing, had earlier said officials briefed ministers on what schemes were still open to the UK, even though it left the bloc at the end of January.
Asked why the UK was not involved in EU procurement, Sir Simon said: “We left the European Union on January 31.”
But pressed by Labour MP Chris Bryant, who said the UK had “every right” to participate in the schemes, Sir Simon said: “All I can say is, as a matter of fact, we have not taken part.”
Committee chair Tom Tugendhat asked Sir Simon whether it was a political decision by ministers.
“It was a political decision,” he said.
British officials at the UK Mission to the European Union in Brussels “briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer, and the decision is no”.
At the daily Downing Street press conference, health secretary Matt Hancock said this was not the case.
He told reporters “there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme”, and even went on to suggest the government had joined the programme.
“It was put up to me and we joined,” he said, adding that taking part in the scheme had had “no impact at all because the scheme has not yet made anything available”.
A government source later explained the UK wasn’t aware of first rounds of the EU scheme, but always said it would consider taking part and the health secretary was confirming on Tuesday that he had agreed to take part in further rounds.
In his clarification letter, Sir Simon said he “inadvertently and wrongly” informed MPs that ministers took a “political decision” not to take part in the EU scheme.
“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,” he wrote.
“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.”
On March 26, Downing Street claimed there had been a “mix up” which meant emails from the EU about the procurement scheme were not received.
A government spokesperson said that “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”.
Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show on the BBC, government minister Michael Gove said there “was some confusion over our involvement in that scheme”.
“But I’ve talked to senior figures in the NHS and they’ve reassured me that there is nothing that we can’t do as an independent nation that being part of that scheme would have allowed us to do.”
Quizzed on whether an email was received by the government, Gove said: “There was some communication confusion. I don’t know all the details of that.”
He added: “I do know having talked to senior figures in the NHS that there’s nothing that participating in that scheme would have allowed us to do that we have not been able to do ourselves.”
The lack of British involvement in the schemes has led to claims that it was motivated by Brexiteer ideology in 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.”
NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect Sir Simon’s later letter.