'I don't believe a word of this': Government faces huge backlash after U-turn letter about EU ventilator scheme

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·3-min read
Staff at Penlon test ventilators ahead of them being shipped out to the NHS, in Abingdon, England, Tuesday, April 21, 2020.  An order for 15,000 Ventilator Challenge Penlon devices has been placed by the government for the newly-adapted design backed by a high tech manufacturing consortium VentilatorChallengeUK (VCUK), which includes Formula One racing teams Mercedes, McLaren and Williams. Britain failed to join an EU-wide program to buy ventilators, even though it is eligible to; the U.K. is still paying into EU coffers during a Brexit transition period that lasts until the end of the year. The British government blamed a communications error _ a lost email _ for the missed opportunity and said it would consider participating in the future.  (Steve Parsons/PA via AP)
The government is facing a backlash following a leading civil servant's U-turn letter regarding the EU's coronavirus ventilator scheme. (Steve Parsons/PA via AP)

A Labour MP has rubbished a leading civil servant’s claim that the UK wasn’t invited to an EU coronavirus ventilator scheme.

Chris Bryant, the MP for Rhondda, said “I don’t believe a word” of a U-turn letter by Sir Simon McDonald, who is permanent undersecretary and head of the Diplomatic Service at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

McDonald initially told the Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that ministers took a “political decision” not to take part in the EU’s Joint Procurement Agreement scheme, which would have given the UK a chance to buy ventilators which help coronavirus patients breathe.

However, he later rowed back on the comments, saying in a “clarification” letter to committee chair Tom Tugendhat: “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.

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“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.

“As those four initial schemes had gone out to tender, we were unable to take part.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant outside the Houses of Parliament in London ahead of Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivering a statement in the House of Commons on his new Brexit deal after the EU Council summit, on what has been dubbed "Super Saturday". (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
Chris Bryant (Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)

Bryant, however, rejected this and also claimed health secretary Matt Hancock chaired a Cobra meeting in which the scheme was discussed.

He posted:

In a later post, he also rejected Tugendhat’s statement that McDonald’s letter was a “clarification”:

Yahoo News UK has contacted the Department of Health regarding Bryant’s claims.

Britain would have been entitled to join the EU ventilator scheme as part of its “transition period” agreement with the bloc following its departure on 31 January.

The scheme was designed to reduce competition and cut prices among member states needing ventilators.

Bryant, meanwhile, has previously spoken out about the language used when talking about coronavirus.

Two weeks ago, when Boris Johnson was in intensive care with COVID-19, Bryant said calling the prime minister a “fighter” was “deeply offensive” to those who die from the disease as it “implies they are to blame”.

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