Civil servant ‘leant on’ as he withdraws remarks about EU bulk-buy schemes

Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under Secretary and Head of the Diplomatic Service, Foreign and Common

Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under Secretary and Head of the Diplomatic Service, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, giving evidence by videolink to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire - Credit: PA

An MP has claimed a senior civil servant in the Foreign Office has been 'leant on' after he sent a letter to the select committee withdrawing his remarks about government failure to join EU bulk-buying schemes.

Sir Simon McDonald, hours before sending the letter, told the foreign affairs committee that 'it was a political decision' for the government not to join the schemes to tackle the coronavirus, and that those in Brussels 'had briefed' ministers on what was available.

He said: 'The mission... in Brussels briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer and the decision is known.'

And he stressed that it was a 'matter of fact' the UK had not joined the scheme, contradicting the government line.

But an hour later a flustered health secretary Matt Hancock denied the allegations, telling reporters: 'As far as I'm aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme.'

Hancock then claimed the UK had participated in the scheme, despite no announcement from the government.

By the end of the evening McDonald had sent a letter to the select committee withdrawing his initial remarks.

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He said that his comments were made 'inadvertently and wrong... due to a misunderstanding', and said his version of events were 'incorrect'.

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He wrote: 'Unfortunately due to a misunderstanding, I inadvertently and wrongly told the Committee that Ministers were briefed by UKMIS on the EU's Joint Procurement Agreement 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'.

He continued: 'Owing to an initial communication problem, the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join in four joint COVID EU procurement schemes.

'As four initial schemes had already gone out to tender we were unable to take part.'

It prompted Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who questioned the diplomat, to claim 'it's all nonsense - he's been leant on'.

'The whole thing stinks of people trying to cover their tracks.'

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