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Bugs and Brexit: What CoronaVirus Means for Brexit
17 Mar, 2020

Seemingly never-ending coverage of Brexit in the past four years has been replaced by coverage of the horrific coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). However, the coronavirus pandemic has unfortunately increased the chances of a No Deal Brexit. The UK now is at serious risk of a double whammy, one a health emergency already exacerbated by Brexit, and the other an entirely avoidable government-made major political and economic mistake.


A recent tweet from Vote Leave’s Darren Grimes showed a picture of empty supermarket shelves with the caption “the corona virus scare is a sign of what the UK would have looked like under Corbyn’s Venezuelan-style government”. Actually, the reality is empty shelves are occurring now in Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain.  

At least five matters illustrate similarities between the coronavirus crisis and Brexit, and the interaction between them: the use and credibility of experts; the Government’s ideological EUphobia inhibiting our prompt and affordable access to coronavirus vaccines; exacerbating staff shortages in the NHS; the disruption to negotiations with the EU on the future relationship making No Deal Brexit more likely, and most importantly whether this Brexit Government is suited to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Firstly, we may recall Brexiters, notably Michael Gove, sought to undermine the credibility of EU experts who advocated the known benefits of EU membership during the 2016 referendum campaign. Perhaps ironically this Brexit Government now champions the views of experts and relies on them to drive the Government’s response to the COVID-19 virus. This has lead some to question whether governmental experts are under pressure to align with the Government’s apparent, but increasingly less tenable, aim to minimise short-term damage to the economy and to alleviate pressure on the underfunded National Health Service. Again there are concerns about the credibility of ‘experts’, though this time not by the Brexiters now in power.  

A 14 March FT table shows the UK has the least restrictive anti-coronavirus measures amongst leading countries. Although greater restrictions become more likely by the day, the UK government has been slow to mandate the closing of schools, restaurants, sporting events, mass gatherings and has yet to implement wide-ranging travel restrictions. The Government’s undeclared, but to many de facto, unique ‘herd immunity’ policy has been criticized by many experts and international authorities in light of some apparent progress in combatting COVID-19 elsewhere. For example, the chief of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been critical of the UK’s failure to test and trace suspected cases.

Secondly, the Government’s ideological EUphobia means anti-coronavirus vaccines will be harder for the UK to access and be more expensive, especially if we distance ourselves excessively from EU rules and the European Medicines Agency. If we are not at the EU decision-making table, British lives will be on the menu.

Thirdly, as the pandemic places greater pressure on the National Health Service, we need more health care professionals. New respiratory machines are not enough – staff are needed to monitor them. There are currently some 100,000 healthcare professional vacancies. The Government’s ‘hostile environment’ towards EU27 nationals does not help fill them. Tens of thousands of EU nationals work in the NHS. Some have left and others are thinking of leaving. Others are simply just not coming – 2018 saw a 96% drop in applications from EU27 nurses.

Fourthly, the now less newsworthy technical negotiations on the future relationship with the EU, in particular trade, are being adversely affected by the coronavirus crisis. Face to face negotiations are now being disrupted, thus increasing the risk of them not finishing before the fast-approaching June 2020 deadline (after which an extension is currently not possible). There are calls for an extension. If the negotiations do not result in deals, the coronavirus pandemic could provide the ideal smokescreen to deliver EUphobes’ long cherished No Deal Brexit.  No Deal Brexit’s adverse impacts can be conveniently blamed on the pandemic, and of course the EU. 

In spite of initial evidence showing some public support for the Government’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, there are signs this is crumbling. Piers Morgan argued forcefully on ITV’s 16 March GMTV “I have never seen government policy so at odds with actions taken by other governments”. Our Government is failing to test and trace suspected cases, disclose fully its coronavirus health policy model (and its forecasts on trade offs between mortality rates, costs and NHS preparedness etc.). A senior Intensive Care Unit (ICU) doctor calling into James O’Brien on LBC at 12.10 pm Monday 16 March stated “the health secretary is simply not telling the truth”. It may be reasonable to conclude the government’s inadequate response is an attempt to reduce pressure on our health system which has been undermined by chronic long-term government underfunding. As the pandemic exposes the shortcomings in the Government’s response, more people may gradually correlate this with how this Government didn’t tell the truth about Brexit either.  

The consequences of failures in our political system now tragically risk the lives of more of the British population than might otherwise be reasonably expected from the pandemic itself. Brexit, especially if we crash out of EU arrangements in June, does not strengthen our ability to defeat the pandemic.  It undermines it.

Nick Hopkinson
Updated 8am 17/3/20

Nick Hopkinson is Vice-Chair of London4Europe. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of London4Europe, nor of the European Movement UK.

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