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‘No time for sideshow mob’: Why the Brexit talks during the coronavirus outbreak have so far missed the point

Martin Rowson's illustration for Issue 189 of The New European. Photo: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on the week bluster on Brexittalks rather missed the point on dealing with coronavirus.

With every day that passes this gets weirder and weirder, doesn’t it? Barely a month ago we could scarcely imagine that most of the country would now be under curfew at home, actually a third of the planet and rising.

The world’s great city centres are largely deserted, its industries idle. In Britain, remote, much-loved beauty spots are patrolled by police officers. Visitors are greeted with ‘Go Home, Rats’ posters drawn by locals who would normally embrace them and their money. Money, what money? The global economy is haemorrhaging and the global poor are most at risk.

With significant variations and outliers – we’ll come back to them – the picture is broadly similar in most of the developed countries most of us know. Traffic trickles along my nearby motorway, the flightpath into Heathrow has gone quiet. Our robin has returned to the balcony. My wife saw a blue tit there, a neighbour spotted a sparrowhawk. I haven’t been to the supermarket for 10 days. Nature stages a comeback, so does crime as humanity stumbles into a vast experiment, economic, social, environmental, political.

When will it end? Nobody knows. How will it end, well or badly? Ditto. It could be a blip, a rapid V-shape recovery that sends everyone to the beach next summer – that’s 2021, of course, when the Tokyo Olympics are rescheduled to take place – giddy with relief. Or an oil price below $20 and all other disturbing signals could presage an apocalypse as societies slowly unravel into poverty and chaos, mixing the dystopian nightmares of JG Ballard or Cormac McCarthy with a splash of Thomas Hobbes. At moments like this fear is the driver, but only if we let it take back control.

Born in the Spanish Armada year of 1588, Hobbes, the philosopher of the English civil war (1642-9) knew only too well that in a profound crisis people will often opt for ‘security’ over liberty, a social contract that empowers an absolute monarch – a Louis XIV, not a Charles II – in his own remedy.

UK polls already confirm that instinct in the current crisis, where 80% would give up rights, a slippery slope cloaked by the natural impulse to unity. You do not carp when staring at eternity. At Jeremy Corbyn’s last pre-Starmer session of PMQs, even Boris tried to be kind.

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At least high-end lawyers like Lord Sumption QC have stirred a civil liberties vs police state debate about over-zealous police ‘guidance’ and the absence of proper parliamentary accountability. We’re not just talking China or Russia’s predictable enthusiasm (Derbyshire police too?) for a Covid Curtain complete with drone and mobile phone tracking surveillance.

Inside the European Union this week the Hungarian parliament foolishly voted time-unlimited, rule-by-decree powers to Viktor Orban, including five-year sentences for publishing ‘fake news’. That’s likely to be the true but inconvenient kind. We have it too. ‘Fix Testing Fiasco NOW,’ roared Wednesday’s Daily Mail. Ominous for Johnson.

What will be done about Budapest’s transgressions? Not much, I suspect. In the circumstances it is almost comic to raise the question of No.10’s trade talks with the EU’s Michel Barnier. The official position remains that the government still sees no need to postpone its painfully-tight December 31 ‘transition’ deadline for a Canada deal, an Australian deal or any kind of deal. But that was before the World King himself succumbed to ‘mild symptoms’ of the Covid-19 bug, quickly followed by health secretary Hancock. Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Whitty, along with Dominic Cummings and EU trade negotiator, David Frost, are self-isolating too. Very Brexity, you may feel, but practice what you preach at the rest of us, chaps!

With MEPs (and the SNP) urging such a course, the saintly Martin Lewis, the personal finance expert and philanthropist, is asking his 785,000 Twitter followers to say whether they’d accept a postponement or not, sensibly suggesting they also tick the box to indicate if they were Remain or Leave voters in 2016. Most of his followers were Remain, he mildly notes. That figures. Remainers tend to think more in terms of economic consequences than will o’ the wisp sovereignty.

In fact the next scheduled round of talks (200 officials involved on both sides) has already been postponed – 10 days ago – due to illness (Barnier’s Covid-19 included) and the impracticality of serious preparation by officials who are not only video-conferencing from home but preoccupied with combatting the coronavirus pandemic. That also goes for British businesses. Most are currently struggling to find ways of staying afloat – many won’t make it – and can hardly be asked to prepare for new, as yet unknown trade terms at the same time. There just isn’t the bandwidth here or in Brussels.

So it’s safe to predict that, if we’re all still here when the pandemic becomes manageable by some means – testing, vaccines, herd immunity or all three – the transition deadline will be postponed, perhaps by a year or even two. There’s no urgent need for Johnson to say so because any excuses will be dismissed as part of a deep-laid Remoaner plot to keep Britain in the EU (actually, we’ve left, Nigel) by the usual suspects.

Last week the Express whipped up a ‘poll’ that purported to show that 86% of voters want the negotiations to continue. When the Covid-19 casualty rates keep on rising even the Express’s elderly readers may get the point. Amid so many distressing funerals – no proper services, no consoling hugs that may kill – the right moment will come for Boris to bury his own bad news. Things will get worse before they get better, he conceded this week. Is the glib optimism finally maturing?

Several obvious points flow from this neglected sub-plot. One is that Brussels now has more urgent problems to worry about. Another is that the UK’s opportunity cost of avoidable distractions have just doubled. We learned this week from various newspapers – the Sunday Borisgraph as well as the Guardian – that ministers passed up on the opportunity to stockpile protective safety glasses for health workers on cost grounds when the NHS budget was under pressure in 2017. They’d reached the same conclusion in 2007. In 2016 they had run a three-day Exercise Cygnus (was cygnus Sir Humphry’s black swan joke?) to see how hospitals would cope with a major flu or other pandemic.

Not well, they concluded, but failed either to publish the results or to take restorative action. I should point out that Jeremy Hunt, who has the TNE stamp of approval (second class) as a level-headed pro-Remainer, was in charge at health and is currently doing useful work promoting the case for more testing.

It was already obvious in 2016-17 that Brexit was sucking up most of Whitehall’s available energy, the referendum followed by Theresa May’s dud election and a negotiating stalemate. But Andy Burnham faced similar distractions as health secretary during the 2009 swine flu epidemic and took more decisive action – after early mistakes the Manchester mayor now admits, as he gently chides ministers for acting too slowly.

And that’s likely to be the nub of history’s verdict when we – or a public inquiry – look back on Covid-19: insufficient contingency planning in a country which had recently gone through ‘mad cow disease’ and foot-and-mouth outbreaks. Complacency and the Brexit distraction of Boris’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ election and dash to the January 31 departure gate meant that ministers minds were on other things, including the threat of a reshuffle hanging over them. It came at the time when communist China finally admitted a human-to-human Covid-19 problem in Wuhan on January 20.

That was three weeks after Dr Li Wenliang warned colleagues on December 30 and was reprimanded for ‘spreading rumours’. He died on February 6. By the time Wuhan owned up the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta – its budget cut by Trump – had started checks on travellers from Wuhan. Beijing went into what Private Eye likes to call ‘reverse ferret’ mode – the draconian two-month lockdown which is only now easing. Let’s hope it did the job. But British government-as-usual was still tied into its first major distraction: Brexit. Now came distraction No.2: Covid-19. This was after a decade when the heavy lifting capacity of central and local authority has been weakened by a decade of economic austerity. That in turn was on top of four decades in which the role and reach of government has – except during New Labour’s interlude – been systematically reduced to make way for greater private and voluntary sector involvement. That can sometimes be an improvement, but not when the system is having a heart attack.

I remember visiting David Cameron’s prosperous Witney constituency to test the then-PM’s Big Society theories in practice. Council officials and voluntary groups – some recommended to me by Cameron himself – all said they could do better if they had more state support instead of less under George Osborne. This spring, much-needed charities budgets are bleeding copiously and Rishi Sunak’s largesse – Boris’s version of Dave’s Big Society – will struggle to reach them. It’s little consolation that a Tory PM – the fourth since Margaret Thatcher’s fall in 1990 – was emboldened at the weekend to contradict her oft-misquoted remark that ‘there is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women and there are families’.

But it takes a government to stockpile protective (PPE) equipment, order millions of test kits and fund speculative research to find antibodies that can identify those who have safely had Covid-19 – especially frontline care workers – and vaccines to protect us all. This is where the Johnson government grievously took its eye off the ball for weeks of grandstanding. Ministers have since been guilty of hyping wonder remedies and the distribution flow of protective kit when reality turns out to be weeks, months, even years away. In the here and now we have too few chemicals for too little testing, done too slowly, too centralised when 44 private virology labs could have been recruited.

It is still too soon to say whether their lockdown timing also came too late to spread the surge and prevent hospital staff and ICU’s being overwhelmed. It certainly looks that way. But there is no excuse for lack of preparation. So if Michael Gove’s promised ‘reckoning’ with less-than-candid China ever materialises, which I doubt, Govey and Boris are due one too. British travellers stranded far from home long after other nationals have been flown back may wish to contribute, though their plight is less acute than at-risk doctors and nurses.

Recrimination for early failures will be softened if the coronavirus defence is judged an overall success – just as inexperienced Thatcher’s complacency over militant miners (1981) and the threat to the Falklands (1981-82) was later redeemed.

The varied responses of governments everywhere face the same calculation. Japan and Sweden (where schools are still open) have been almost as relaxed as populist Brazil. Germany’s testing regime – 100,000 a day, at least 10 times Britain’s rate – looks like the EU’s standout success, at least it does today, though its regional disparities bear watching. So do ours. But everywhere the true death rates are uncertain, we are not comparing like with like.

As its own crisis deepens, Spain’s socialist government now looks in even deeper trouble than Italy while a single Austrian ski resort is blamed for becoming a super-spreader rather than lose its high season. Whatever is going on in sphinx-like Russia is bound to be foreigners’ fault – as it is in Trump’s ‘China virus’ US where his own aggressive inaction has been disastrous. His own reverse ferret now has 100,000 American deaths as ‘a good result’. Just weeks ago it was a few dozen. State governors, notably New York’s Andrew Cuomo, have shown better leadership. There are predictions of 30% US unemployment. The UK too?

Paradoxically in China itself foreigners are also apparently being blamed for re-importing the disease. Even by Trump standards that’s outrageous. China’s hyper-efficient near neighbours, Taiwan and South Korea, sail serenely on the back of previous experience: via testing and contact tracing. Teeming Lagos, which survived Ebola with skilful action, is now in lockdown along with Moscow.

There is a natural tendency to give governments the benefit of the doubt, we want them to succeed in a crisis. That must be why Johnson’s ratings – Trump’s too – are up and why leaderless Labour has not made more of own goals like the failure to sign up to an EU ventilator project. ‘We are no longer members of the EU,’ was No.10’s original line. Then it became an email mix-up, finally an admission of error; another lost opportunity cost also reflected in Whitehall’s apparent failure to take up legitimate manufacturing offers within the UK. Prime minister Corbyn would not have been so easily forgiven.

Political inquests are a long way down the rocky road. More urgent is fire-fighting now. And in this respect the EU27’s challenge is as acute as Britain, arguably more so because Britain has already made its political choice to go it alone. As they square up to the likely cost of the pandemic the 27 have an existential political choice of their own to make: do they try to fight it together or to fall further back on national solutions, as has largely been the case so far? If the former then how do they share the burden fairly, especially within the 19-nation Eurozone?

The past few days have not been propitious. As after the banking crash of 2008-9 the European Central Bank has been more decisive than the politicians in announcing its willingness to soak up ballooning debt by buying up to 750 billion euros worth of bonds. But ex-ECB president, Mario (‘whatever it takes’) Draghi’s call on finance ministers to underwrite a form of joint European debt met with a cool response from northern members states – Germany, the Netherlands and Scans – who mistrust their Latin colleagues to the south and west.

As well as costing them serious money when they are struggling to fill the Brexit hole in the EU budget they fear the ‘moral hazard’ that may arise when they bail out – as they would see it – more profligate comrades.

So the nine Eurozone states, France, Italy and Spain, plus six minnows, who want a mutualised ‘coronabond’ now face their own dilemma: should they form a coalition of the willing and go ahead on their own?

It would be risky economically – encumbered with debt of uncertain 
status for decades – but politically risky not to act and be forced to borrow emergency funds from the European Stability Fund and have their budgets supervised by thrifty Germans, as Greece did last time. We can all see how that might work out in countries with powerful populist parties of the nationalist right.

The EU’s founding visionary, Jean Monnet, predicted that the new Europe would be forged in crises. Or undone by them.

Dangerous times ahead. Time to review that vodka-and-football Covid-19 strategy in Belarus?

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