Serious questions have been raised in recent weeks over the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
From a devastating report in The Times which accused the cabinet of “sleepwalking” into disaster, to major concerns ranging from repeated failures to meet promised testing targets, a terrifying dearth of PPE for NHS staff, a shortage of ventilators and a lack of transparency over the number of deaths due to Covid-19 – answers are needed.
The government’s response to many of these queries has often been confusing or contradictory, particularly concerning the UK’s decision not to join an EU procurement scheme to bulk buy medical equipment including ventilators and PPE.
When the government was initially questioned about this particular call, back in March, at first a spokesman for Boris Johnson said it was because “We are no longer a member of the EU”.
After outcry, Number 10 quickly backtracked, blaming the decision on a “communication problem”.
The next chapter of this saga might give onlookers deja vu: now the most senior civil servant in the Foreign Office has been forced to walk back his claim that the failure to join the scheme was a “political decision”.
Speaking to the foreign affairs committee on Tuesday, Sir Simon McDonald – the permanent undersecretary to the department – was quizzed by Labour MP Chris Bryant on why the UK hadn’t initially participated in the EU initiative.
At first, McDonald responded that the UK “left the European Union on January 31st” before elaborating when committee chair Tom Tugendhat pressed him again.
“It was a political decision,” responded McDonald.
“The UK mission (UKREP) briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer and the decision is known”.
But hours later, health secretary Matt Hancock denied the implications of McDonald’s statement at the daily briefing.
As far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate in that scheme.
When we did receive an invitation in the Department for Health it was put up to me to be asked 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.
This doesn’t tally with Hancock’s prior claims on 19 March to be “engaging” with the scheme, which came a week before the initial announcement that the UK would not be joining.
A spokesperson for the European Commission also denied that the UK was currently involved in the scheme but said ““They are most welcome to participate in future rounds”.
But McDonald then penned a letter to the select committee, stating he “wrongly” told the committee that the inaction was a political decision.
“Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, I inadvertently and wrongly told the committee, that ministers were briefed by UKMIS on the EU’s joint procurement scheme and took a political decision not to participate in it,” he wrote.
The EU has previously insisted that the UK was briefed on the plans.
McDonald’s backtrack was met by widespread disbelief from MPs and the public alike.
Labour MP for Rhondda Chris Bryant accused the government of “repeatedly [telling] fibs”.
It seems that not content with refusing to take part in a mass EU purchase of desperately needed vital equipment out of a fit of Eurosceptic pique, the government has repeatedly told fibs in a sad attempt to cover its tracks.
It beggars belief that they deliberately, intentionally, with forethought and against advice, decided not to take part. And that they trotted out every excuse in the book when they realised they had messed up.
Piers Morgan said it was “complete nonsense”.
“The idea that a civil servant as this guy just ‘misspoke’ is nonsense. They’re treating us as idiots,” he said.
“I don’t believe he did [misspeak]. I believe he’s being strong-marched into doing this ridiculous, embarrassing U-turn to cover their backsides”.
The contradictions keep mounting up...