Labour is calling for clarity after a senior civil servant said the UK took a “political decision” not to join an EU scheme to source medical equipment.
The Foreign Office’s Sir Simon McDonald told MPs that ministers were briefed on “what was on offer” but said “no”.
But Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the UK had actually joined an EU scheme to source PPE but it had “yet to deliver a single item”.
Whitehall sources suggested to the BBC that Sir Simon “misspoke”.
The source said that a clarification would be issued, following the civil servant’s appearance at the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said ministers needed to explain what had happened.
“We were told the government missed an email invitation to join the EU procurement scheme. Then we were told the decision not to take part was a political decision.
“Now we are told that the government did sign up to the scheme,” he said.
Last month the government was criticised for not taking part in an EU procurement scheme to bulk buy medical equipment, including potentially life-saving ventilators, 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.
Ministers denied claims that anti-EU sentiment had played a part in the decision.
Downing Street then 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 why the decision was taken not to join the scheme, Sir Simon – 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.”
Asked about the claim at the government’s daily coronavirus briefing, Mr Hancock said he had spoken to the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and as far as he knew there had been no political decision not to participate.
He later revealed that he had now accepted an invitation from the EU to join that particular scheme on an “associate” basis but said it had not yet delivered a single item of medical equipment.
“When we did receive an invitation in the Department of Health… it was put up to me… and we joined and we are now members of that scheme, but as far as we know that scheme hasn’t yet delivered a single item of PPE.”
The decision not to join earlier had had “absolutely zero” impact on the UK’s current supplies, he suggested.
The BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg said the row reflected the intense pressure on the government over its record on key equipment and whether its rhetoric about doing all it could was backed by the reality.
The EU Commission has said it will take time for the joint scheme to deliver any ventilators.