On 31 January 2020, seven days after the Chinese government took the remarkable step of locking down Wuhan city and the surrounding Hubei province, the last thing on the minds of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Ministers was worrying reports of disease in the South East. A meeting of Cobra, Britain’s national crisis committee, held on 24 January, lasted just an hour and any threat of Covid-19 affected the UK was swiftly dismissed by Health Minister, Matt Hancock. Mr. Johnson did not even attend the meeting, which is normally always chaired by the PM.
The reason for the relaxed approach was simple. Still basking in December’s glorious election victory, Mr. Johnson was finally able to take the UK out of the European Union. The fireworks and parties for the big night were being planned, the celebratory 50p coins minted.
Although there had been two confined cases of Coronavirus on 29 January, Mr. Johnson and his Leave-supporting Cabinet did not seem interested in taking any action that might hurt the economy, thereby risking public support for robust trade negotiations with the EU.
In a Brexit speech held at Greenwich on 3 February, he stated:
“We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as Coronavirus will trigger panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage.
“Then, at that moment, humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”
During two crucial weeks in February, Mr. Johnson was holed up in his country estate with his fiancée, and it was reported that he refused to work weekends.
This laxity in late January, early February, which will undoubtedly be poured over by academics and in public inquiries in the future, has cost Britain dearly. It has the highest death toll in Europe, with over 31,000 leaving loved ones before their time. The economy is expected to shrink by 30 percent in the first half of 2020. The government (and ultimately, the British taxpayer), is paying the wages of 6.3 million people, after 20 percent of companies furloughed their employees.
Furthermore, it has been revealed that Brexit left the country woefully underprepared for a global pandemic. An investigatory report in The Times revealed:
“We have talked to scientists, academics, doctors, emergency planners, public officials and politicians about the root of the crisis and whether the government should have known sooner and acted more swiftly to kick-start the Whitehall machine and put the NHS onto a war footing.
They told us that, contrary to the official line, Britain was in a poor state of readiness for a pandemic. Emergency stockpiles of PPE had severely dwindled and gone out of date after becoming a low priority in the years of austerity cuts. The training to prepare key workers for a pandemic had been put on hold for two years while contingency planning was diverted to deal with a possible no-deal Brexit.”
Given the dreadful price Britain seems to have already paid for putting Brexit preparations and celebrations ahead of public health, how likely is it that trade talks will be delayed, and the transition period extended beyond 31 December 2020?
At the time of writing there was scant evidence suggesting the British government had any intentions of delaying Brexit because of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, there is suspicion that Covid-19 will give Mr. Johnson and his government a get-out-of-jail-free card.
The European Union Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan told Ireland’s RTÉ's Today that Britain does not seem to be approaching EU trade talks with a plan to succeed. Furthermore, the UK appears set to blame any post-Brexit fallout on the economic shock from Covid-19.
"Despite the urgency and enormity of the negotiating challenge, I am afraid we are only making very slow progress in the Brexit negotiations.
"There is no real sign that our British friends are approaching the negotiations with a plan to succeed. I hope I am wrong, but I don't think so.
"I think that the United Kingdom politicians and government have certainly decided that COVID is going to be blamed for all the fallout from Brexit and my perception of it is they don't want to drag the negotiations out into 2021 because they can effectively blame COVID for everything."
The deadline for extending the transition period expires next month. The 25,000 civil servants who were working on the negotiations have been reassigned to deal with the medical, scientific, social, and economic consequences of the pandemic. Although the Prime Minister has been overwhelmed by Covid-19 and his own brush with death after contracting the virus, business and EU migrants deserve some clarity about the future.
And is Brexit still “the will of the people?” Although the stalwarts of the Conservative Party who voted Mr. Johnson in as Prime Minister after Theresa May’s resignation are devoted to the Brexit cause, the public may be softening its stance. The dedication and sacrifice of EU nationals who staff the NHS, care homes, and other key services has not gone unnoticed. And a poll carried out in late March showed 64 percent of voters supported an extension of the Brexit negotiations. Importantly, this included almost 50 percent of those who voted to Leave.
However, a senior UK government figure told POLITICO: "We are leaving on December 31 for definite. The prime minister is adamant. That is the one thing that will not move."
Given that the world is facing the most significant economic crisis since the 1930s Great Depression, this is one gamble Mr Johnson may ultimately regret taking.
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