Sir Simon McDonald gave evidence to MPs via video link yesterday. Screenshot: Parliament TV
Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, has clarified that it was not a “political decision” by ministers not to take part in an EU scheme to buy medical equipment to fight coronavirus.
McDonald wrote to parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday evening, shortly after giving evidence to MPs that sparked a barrage of questions about the government's involvement with an EU scheme to procure ventilators.
Ministers were last month accused of putting “Brexit over breathing” after it emerged that the UK had not signed up to the programme, despite being invited to by Brussels.
No.10 blamed "an initial communication problem" involving lost emails, but insisted the UK could join it in the future.
But giving evidence to MPs yesterday, McDonald said the UK had not taken part because "we left the European Union on January 31".
Asked by committee chairman Tom Tugendhat whether it had been a political decision by ministers, he replied: "It was a political decision."
But health secretary Matt Hancock appeared to contradict the comments at the daily Downing Street press conference shortly afterwards. He told reporters: "As far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme."
And in a letter to the committee yesterday evening, McDonald offered a “clarification” of his earlier testimony.
He 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. 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 communication problem, the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join in four EU COVID procurement schemes."
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: "First we were told the government missed an email invitation to join the EU procurement scheme. Then we were told the decision not to take part was a political decision. Now we are told that the government did sign up to the scheme.
"This is not a trivial matter. Ministers need to explain what has happened and who is speaking for the government on this matter."