Foreign Office boss U-turns and says he was wrong to claim ministers made ‘political decision’ not to join EU ventilator scheme
FCO permanent secretary Sir Simon McDonald retracted his claim just hours after appearing before MPs.
The Foreign Office’s top civil servant has retracted his claim that it was a “political decision” by ministers not to take part in an EU scheme to buy medical equipment to fight coronavirus.
Sir Simon McDonald's dramatic U-turn came just hours after he gave evidence to MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
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.
Number 10 blamed "an initial communication problem" involving lost emails, nbut insisted the UK could join it in the future.
But giving evidence to the committee, Sir Simon - the Foreign's Office's permanent secretary - 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."
However, he was directly contradicted by Health Secretary Matt Hancock 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 follow-up letter to the committee sent late on Tuesday, Sir Simon 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 needs to explain what has happened and who is speaking for the Government on this matter."