Coronavirus: UK made ‘political decision’ not to join EU ventilator procurement scheme, says Foreign Office boss
The UK did not initially take part in the ventilator procurement scheme.
The UK’s failure to take part in an EU scheme to buy ventilators was a “political decision” by ministers, according to the Foreign Office's top civil servant.
Permanent under-secretary Sir Simon McDonald's comments put him at odds with Downing Street, which had blamed a mix-up over emails for the fact that the UK did not take part.
Ministers were last month accused of putting "Brexit over breathing" after it emerged that the Government had not signed up for the procurement scheme, which also covers personal protective equipment, despite being eligible to take part.
At the time, a Number 10 spokesman 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.
"As the Commission has confirmed, we are eligible to participate in joint procurements during the transition period, following our departure from the EU earlier this year.
"As those four initial procurement schemes had already gone out to tender we were unable to take part in these, but we will consider participating in future procurement schemes on the basis of public health requirements at the time."
But giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committe, Sir Simon 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."
He said the UK mission in Brussels has "briefed ministers abut what was available, what was on offer, and the decision is known".
At the daily Downing Street press conference, Health Secretary Matt Hancock denied Sir Simon's claims.
He said: "I have spoken to the Foreign Secretary and as far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme.
"When we did receive an invitation in the Department of Health, because it came to the Department of Health, it was put up to me to be asked. And we joined. So we are now members of that scheme. However, as far as I know that scheme hasn’t yet delivered a single item of PPE.
SNP MP Stewart McDonald, who is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told PoliticsHome: "Sir Simon McDonald has done a public service in revealing that ministers were made fully aware of what our friends in the EU were offering to support us during this pandemic, the UK gvernment made a political decision to shun that offer - putting lives at risk - and then government spokespersons, on behalf of ministers, sought to mislead the public.
"This is a shameful episode and Number 10 must come clean ASAP."
Lib Dem MP Layla Moran said: "Ministers were found out today. The decision not to apply for the EU ventilator procurement scheme was a 'political decision' made by Downing Street.
"They didn't miss an email, they just misled the public with a shoddy excuse in the midst of this pandemic. They put ideology over saving lives; it was Brexit before breathing all along."