British diplomat admits ‘political decision’ not to join EU bulk-buy scheme not ‘e-mail error’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Mologic Laboratory in the Bedford technology Park

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Mologic Laboratory in the Bedford technology Park in Bedfordshire. Photograph: Jack Hill/The Times/PA. - Credit: PA

The Foreign Office's top civil servant Sir Simon McDonald has admitted the government's failure to join an EU bulk-buying scheme was a 'political' decision, not an e-mail communication error.

McDonald smiled awkwardly as he initially tried to use the government line that the UK 'left the European Union on January 31st' in response to a question from Chris Bryant on the schemes.

He said: 'All I can say is it is a matter of fact we have not taken part.'

Pressed further by the committee chair Tom Tugendhat, he said: 'It was a political decision. The UK mission (UKREP) briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer and the decision is known.'

Chris Bryant, looking deflated by the answer, said he 'couldn't ask another question after that'.

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Boris Johnson's spokesperson previously dismissed the scheme - prompting politicians to accuse the government of putting 'Brexit before breathing'.

Hours later the spokesperson blamed a communication error surrounding the e-mail invitation for failure to join the scheme.

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They 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.'

But days before health secretary Matt Hancock had claimed on Question Time the government was engaging with the invitation.

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Michael Gove later said that the UK did not need support from the EU 'as an independent nation', claiming experts had assured him that the country could source its own ventilators without joining the initiative.

MORE: Matt Hancock dismisses claims 'political decision' prevented UK joining EU scheme

Naomi Smith, from the pro-European Best for Britain campaign group, said the decision by the government was 'disastrous'.

'If it was a political decision not to join Europe-wide schemes to bulk-buy PPE and other essential medical equipment, then the government prioritised its own image over the country's health.

'That decision has been disastrous. Frontline workers deserve much better.

'We urge the government to seek participation in future schemes as soon as possible, so we can source the medical supplies Britain's hospitals and care homes desperately need.'

Outspoken Remainer Phillip Pullman used a fiery blog post on Monday to write: 'If it turns out to be true that the government for Brexit-related reasons refused to take part in the procurement advantage offered by EU governments, thus making it harder for the NHS to deal with the Covid-19 and placing thousands of people at risk, the entire front bench ought to resign.'

The diplomat also said the prime minister will consider in the next few weeks an extension to the Brexit transition period, but said it was a 'theoretical' possibility.

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