Matt Hancock has denied the UK’s failure to take part in an EU scheme to procure equipment to tackle coronavirus was a ‘political decision’.
The Foreign Office’s top civil servant Sir Simon McDonald had said that there was no e-mail error as the prime minister’s office had previously claimed, but ‘as a matter of fact we have not taken part’ in the EU schemes.
He added: ‘It was a political decision. The UK mission (UKREP) briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer and the decision is known.’
But Matt Hancock, questioned by journalists at the Downing Street briefing, said: ‘I haven’t seen that exchange but 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.
‘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, as far as I know that scheme hasn’t a single item of PPE (personal protective equipment).’
Hancock said he had wanted to take part in the joint effort, as he continued to explain: ‘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, having said that, as far as I’m aware this scheme has not yet delivered any PPE.
‘And that is the decision-making process I was involved in.
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‘It was a recommendation and I took the decision in the normal way – that’s the long and short of it.
‘But the impact on our ability to deliver PPE is zero – there is no impact at all because the scheme has not yet made anything available.’
A report earlier in the week claimed that the EU scheme would deliver £1.3 billion worth of PPE to 25 countries, something a minister argued was ‘inadequate’.
Responding to McDonald’s comments, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey said the government’s ‘evident unwillingness to work with the European Union through the current crisis is unforgivable’.
‘Time and again, the government seem to have missed opportunities to join the EU’s procurement efforts. Continued shortages of PPE over the last few days coupled with the Government’s failure to scale up testing for NHS and social care workers demonstrate that the current approach hasn’t delivered. Lives are at risk as a result.
‘To maintain any credibility, the government must be completely frank about what opportunities were missed or deliberately passed up. Ministers must be absolutely clear that they will participate in all future EU efforts to secure critical supplies.
‘No stone can be left unturned when it comes to getting essential equipment to those risking their lives on the frontline to care for people who are gravely ill with COVID-19.’
Chris Bryant MP, who asked McDonald a question about the scheme on the Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted: ‘Following the FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office] answer to me earlier 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.
‘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’d messed up.
‘I know the coronavirus epidemic was never going to be easy to manage, but this level of incompetence and chicanery should make us angry’.