The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has been forced to deny explosive claims by a civil servant at the top of government that ministers made a political decision to opt out of an EU scheme to bulk-buy ventilators and protective equipment for NHS workers.
Following comments to a select committee by the Foreign Offices permanent secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, Hancock used Downing Streets daily press briefing to rebut the damaging claims which risk accusations that ministers have put Brexit ideology ahead of peoples lives.
“I have spoken to the foreign secretary,” Hancock said an hour after McDonalds remarks, which he retracted on Tuesday night. “As far as Im aware there was no political decision not to participate.
“We did receive an invitation in the Department of Health and it was put up to me to be asked and we joined so we are now members of that scheme.”
However, a spokesman for the European commission swiftly rebutted any suggestion that the UK was currently involved in any of the EUs efforts to buy masks, gowns, ventilators or laboratory supplies. “They are most welcome to participate in future rounds,” the spokesman said.
The EU launched four rounds of procurement of personal protective equipment, ventilators and laboratory supplies in late February and March.
UK officials failed to take up an invitation to join the steering committee of participating countries that issues orders for medical equipment until 19 March – after the bulk purchases had been made.
When Downing Street has previously been questioned about the lack of involvement, officials and ministers have said the government failed to take part in the schemes because “owing to an initial communication problem, the UK did not receive an invitation in time”.
But when asked on Tuesday by the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, whether there had been policy advice on whether to participate in the EU ventilator scheme, the FCOs most senior mandarin appeared to contradict the government line.
McDonald told the committee: “It was a political decision. The UK mission in Brussels briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer, and the decision is known.”
His remarks appeared to blow a hole in the original defence of a “communication confusion” previously put forward by the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove.
McDonald had earlier been asked by the Labour MP Chris Bryant: “Why oh why did we not take part in the EU ventilator procurement scheme?”
He replied: “The UK declined to participate because we left the European Union on 31 January.”
Bryant replied: “No, we were invited to take part apparently, we missed the emails or forgot the emails.” At this point McDonald insisted that ministers had been fully briefed.
In a “clarificatory” letter to the foreign affairs select committee on Tuesday night, McDonald said that unfortunately due to a misunderstanding he had mistakenly and wrongly told the committee that a political decision had been taken not to be involved in the EU joint procurement scheme.
He wrote: “Ministers were not briefed by our mission in Brussels about the scheme and a political decision was not taken whether or not to participate. Owing to an initial communication problem the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join four EU joint Covid joint procurement schemes. As these four initial schemes had already gone out to tender we were unable to take part.”
Hancocks claim to have given the green light to joining the procurement scheme appeared to be a reference to the belated decision on 19 March to be represented on the key committee making the orders of equipment.
He told reporters at the daily press briefing that he did not believe that any equipment under the EU scheme had yet been delivered. EU sources said they expected the first deliveries of €1.5bn (£1.3bn) worth of protective gear within days.
McDonalds claim that he made an error in giving evidence to the committee is remarkable, given that he is the senior civil servant responsible for handling UK relations with the EU, and the controversy over UK involvement in the EU medical schemes had been widely aired in the media.
At the end of his evidence session McDonald had also taken the chance to correct a separate minor error in his evidence, but clearly had been given no guidance that he had wrongly briefed the select committee over the EU medical equipment schemes since he made no attempt to correct the record.
Speaking after the hearing, Bryant said he had been shocked by McDonalds answer, adding: “It seems that not content with refusing to take part in a mass EU purchase of desperately needed vital equipment out of a fit of Eurosceptic pique, the government has repeatedly told fibs in a sad attempt to cover its tracks.”
He added: “It beggars belief that they deliberately, intentionally, with forethought and against advice, decided not to take part. And that they trotted out every excuse in the book when they realised they had messed up.”