April 21, 2020 / 8:27 PM / a month ago

Reaction speed issue dogs UK government as senior official backtracks

LONDON (Reuters) - The top official in Britain’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday he had been mistaken when he told a committee of lawmakers the government had made a political decision not to participate in a European scheme to buy ventilators to fight the coronavirus.

The British government, which is entitled to participate in such schemes under an 11-month transition deal since leaving the EU in January, said last month it had missed the invitation in an e-mail mixup.

The issue has been controversial in Britain, which is still deeply divided over the merits of leaving the EU, as the government battles accusations it was too slow to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and opposition lawmakers argue it let politics get in the way of procuring vital equipment.

Asked by a lawmaker on parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee what the policy advice from officials had been or whether it had been a political decision, Simon McDonald, permanent under secretary and head of the diplomatic service at the foreign ministry, said: “It was a political decision.”

McDonald said officials in the UK mission to the EU had “briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer and the decision is known”.

But just hours later, McDonald wrote to the chair of the committee saying that “due to a misunderstanding” he had “inadvertently and wrongly” said it was a political decision.

“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 said in the letter, posted on Twitter by the committee’s chair.

The EU has said Britain was given a chance to participate in the joint procurement to buy ventilators, and said schemes to buy ventilators and other medical gear were discussed in meetings in which the UK participated.

“The facts of the situation are as previously set out. Owing to an initial communication problem, the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join in four joint COVID EU procurement schemes,” McDonald said in the letter.

Earlier, when asked about McDonald’s comment to the committee, health minister Matt Hancock told a news conference there had not been a political decision.

Reporting by Kylie MacLellan, editing by Estelle Shirbon and Stephen Addison

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