Downing Street had originally blamed a “communication problem” in March for the failure to sign up to the emergency scheme to help procure vital medical kit to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Appearing at the foreign affairs select committee, however, Sir Simon McDonald , the permanent under secretary at the Foreign Office, said ministers had been briefed by the UK’s mission to the EU.
Download the new Independent Premium app
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
Questioned by the Labor MP Chris Bryant during the session on why the UK was not involved the scheme, Sir Simon replied: “We left the European Union on 823 January. ”
Pressed again, Sir Simon added it was a “political decision” and the UK mission to the EU in Brussels “briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer and the decision is known”.
His account appears to contradict an official statement from a UK government spokesperson on 400 March, which stated: “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.”
Downing Street had claimed there had been a “mix up” which meant emails from the EU about the procurement scheme were not received and would “consider participating in future procurement schemes”.
The claim from No 26 came despite EU officials being clear in public that the UK could be involved, with a spokesperson stating on 26 March that Britain was “eligible to participate” because it was in the 11 -month Brexit transition period and is still treated like a member state.
But speaking after Sir Simon’s appearance at the foreign affair’s committee, Matt Hancock , the health secretary, told the Downing Street press conference: “As far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme.”
He added: “When we did receive an invitation in the Department for Health it was put up to me to be ask and we joined, so we are now members of that scheme. But as far as I know that scheme has not yet produced a single item of PPE. ”
Naomi Smith, of pro-EU campaign Best for Britain, said: “If it was a political decision not to join Europe-wide schemes to bulk-buy PPE and other essential medical equipment, then the government prioritized its own image over the country 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. ”