Coronavirus: Government facing fresh questions over EU equipment scheme

Coronavirus: Government facing fresh questions over EU equipment scheme

The government is facing fresh questions over the time it took to join an EU scheme to source medical equipment.

Officials have insisted the UK did not receive an initial invitation in time because of communication problems.

But Brussels sources have told the BBC the UK was given ample opportunity to take part in the scheme.

On Tuesday, a senior civil servant retracted claims the UK had taken a “political decision” not to join.

Last month the government was criticised for not taking part in the EU plan to bulk buy medical equipment – including potentially life-saving ventilators, protective equipment and testing kit – that could be used to tackle the coronavirus.

At the time, Downing Street said the UK was making its own arrangements because it was no longer in the EU, although ministers denied claims that anti-EU sentiment had played a part in the decision.

Opposition parties accused the government of putting Brexit before public health.

Downing Street later issued a statement saying the UK had been invited to take part but officials did not see the email because of a “communication confusion”.

Asked on Tuesday why the decision was taken not to join the scheme, Sir Simon McDonald – who is permanent secretary at the Foreign Office – told the Foreign Affairs Committee that it was a deliberate move by ministers.

“We left the European Union on 31 January,” he said.

Pushed further, he added: “All I can say is that it is a matter of fact that we have not taken part. It was a political decision… and the decision is no.”

But five hours later Sir Simon retracted his comments after Mr Hancock disputed the suggestion.

“Due to a misunderstanding, I inadvertently and wrongly told the committee that ministers were briefed on the joint EU procurement scheme and took a political decision not to take part in it,” he wrote.

“That 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 added that “the facts of the situation are as previously set out” and the UK missed the opportunity to take part “owing to an initial communication problem”.

The UK now has 10,000 ventilators – 3,000 of which are not being used. From early May, 1,500 a week should be supplied by ventilator consortium.

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