U.K. Took ‘Political Decision’ to Skip EU Medical Kit Effort

(Bloomberg) --

The U.K. missed out on a European Union-wide effort to procure medical supplies because of a “political decision,” the most senior official in the Foreign Office said, contradicting statements from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office.

As governments around the world scrambled to get protective equipment for medical workers in March, the EU announced its own procurement program. Although Britain left the EU on Jan. 31, it was still entitled to participate but chose not to take part.

In March, Johnson’s office said it hadn’t received the invitation due to an “initial communication problem” -- it didn’t receive the relevant emails, it said. But giving evidence to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Foreign Office Permanent Secretary Simon McDonald defended his staff.

“It was a political decision,” McDonald said, after initially trying to avoid answering. He said British officials in Brussels “briefed ministers about what was available, what was on offer -- and the decision is known.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, speaking at the daily press conference just over an hour later, rejected the charge. “I have spoken to the foreign secretary,” he said. “As far as I’m aware there was no political decision not to participate.” He said he had asked to join the program when it was brought to him.

Labour’s Chris Bryant, whose questions to McDonald prompted the answer, said the decision “beggars belief.”

“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 Euroskeptic pique, the government has repeatedly told fibs in a sad attempt to cover its tracks,” Bryant said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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