Foreign Office's top civil servant backtracks on claim UK not joining Covid-19 EU schemes was 'political'

The Foreign Office's top civil servant has made a U-turn after he earlier said the UK's decision to not take part in European Union schemes to secure equipment to combat coronavirus was "political."

Sir Simon McDonald, made the claim to the Commons foreign affairs committee on Tuesday.

However he later wrote to the committee to "clarify" the point and said "due to a misunderstanding" he "inadvertently and wrongly" said ministers were briefed about the EU scheme and took a political decision not to participate.

Sir Simon reverted to the government’s defence that the scheme was not initially joined because of a “communication problem”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock had to deny politics had been involved in the decision and said he had signed-off on joining continental efforts to procure more personal protection equipment (PPE) and ventilators.

Speaking at Downing Street’s daily Covid-19 press briefing, Mr Hancock said: “I haven’t seen that exchange but I have spoken to the Foreign Secretary (Dominic Raab) and as far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme.”

“The invitation when it came in to the Department for Health – and I know there has been debate about whether it was sent to the wrong email address initially – to participate in this scheme in an associate way, because we are not members of the EU, came to me for decision and I said yes."

But he added the scheme “hasn’t yet delivered a single item of PPE" so has not had an impact on the UK's ability to deliver the equipment.

Credit: PA

Sir Simon was asked during his appearance before the committee why the UK was not involved in EU procurement.

He said: “We left the European Union on January 31,” echoing the initial reason Downing Street gave on why Britain was not involved.

Pressed by Labour MP Chris Bryant, who later called the situation a “copper bottomed scandal”, Sir Simon added: “All I can say is, as a matter of fact, we have not taken part.”

Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat asked the Foreign Office’s permanent under-secretary whether it was a political decision by ministers.

“It was a political decision,” Sir Simon replied.

Matt Hancock said the decision was not political during the Downing Street press conference. Credit: PA

But he later wrote in his letter, this point was "incorrect" and ministers were not briefed on what EU schemes were still open to the UK.

“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,” he wrote.

"The facts of the situation are as previously set out."

Boris Johnson's government has claimed that “communication problems” caused by missed emails and “not receiving an invitation to join” had meant the UK did not take part in a procurement scheme for ventilators.

A government spokesman 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”.

Acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey has accused ministers of risking lives by failing to cooperate with the EU. Credit: PA

The lack of British involvement in the schemes has led to claims that it was motivated by Brexiteer ideology in Mr Johnson’s administration – a claim denied by Downing Street.

Sir Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, accused ministers of putting “lives at risk” by failing to cooperate with Brussels.

He called for the Government to be “frank” about why the deadline for being involved was “missed or deliberately passed up”.

“This Government’s evident unwillingness to work with the European Union through the current crisis is unforgivable,” said the former energy secretary.

“Time and again, the Government seem to have missed opportunities to join the EU’s procurement efforts. Lives are at risk as a result.”