The British government is refusing to confirm or deny reports it has given China assurances about the way it refers to the coronavirus pandemic and its cause.
The Chinese Embassy in London says Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has promised Beijing it will not “politicise” the outbreak and “fully agrees with China that the source of the virus is a scientific issue that requires professional and science-based assessment”.
If the UK has made such assurances it will be seen as siding with China in a growing international row over the country’s handling of the fallout of the pandemic which began there.
The Chinese have accused US President Donald Trump’s administration of “politicising” the COVID-19 outbreak by calling it the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus.
And Mr Trump and the World Health Organisation have accused each other of politicising the crisis in a row over the WHO’s naivety in praising China’s response to the outbreak.
The Foreign Office will only confirm that Mr Raab had discussions with the Chinese ambassador and its foreign minister but would not be drawn on the nature of those talks.
“The UK believes coronavirus is a global challenge and it’s vital that countries come together to tackle this shared threat,” officials said in a written statement.
“We’ve always said that transparent and accurate information about the virus is essential for an effective global response.”
However asked about the reports former foreign Secretary Lord Hague told Sky News the source of the virus appears to be fairly incontrovertible, saying: “I haven’t seen a credible theory that doesn’t have it coming out of China somehow.”
The reports come as Western anger and frustration with China over the pandemic grows. Scientists believe its most likely source was wild animals – and that it was transferred to humans in an animal market in Wuhan.
But the Chinese government is trying to shift the blame, according to British intelligence, who accuse Beijing of engaging in a Russian-style disinformation campaign to muddy the water.
A Chinese foreign ministry official has, for instance, publicly suggested the virus was brought to Wuhan by the American military.
And the Global Times – an international mouthpiece for the Chinese government – tweeted suggestions it may have started in Italy.
If Mr Raab has agreed with China that the “source of the virus is a scientific issue that requires professional and science-based assessment” as is being claimed by the Chinese, he may also want to seek assurances from them that that quest will be open and transparent.
The Chinese suppressed reports of the virus when it first appeared and persecuted whistleblower doctors.
They are believed to have massively under-reported the scale of their own outbreak.
And Chinese authorities have also in the last few days placed restrictions on any scientific or academic research into the virus.
Studies on the origin of the virus must now be approved by central government officials.
The cover-up and under-reporting in China is likely to have led Western countries to greatly underestimate the threat of COVID-19 and fail to prepare for their own outbreaks sufficiently.
If China also suppresses its own findings into the causes of the virus, vital lessons will go unlearned making another future pandemic more likely.