The UK performed a significant U-turn in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic this week. After days of savage criticism in the press over its laggardly testing strategy, Britain’s top health minister made a bold new pledge.
By the end of the month, Matt Hancock said, the country would aim to perform 100,000 tests a day, a tenfold increase from the end of March.
That would be even more than Germany’s current stellar performance of 50,000 tests a day. The announcement had the desired effect – the next day’s headlines were a lot more favorable and Hancock took the helm of the daily Downing Street briefing for the second day in a row on Friday.
But the question of why the UK fell so far behind on testing – even as the World Health Organization urged countries to “test, test, test” – refuses to go away. Hancock tried to explain away the criticism by attributing it to the UK’s historically small diagnostics industry. But critics believe that something else had been driving the UK’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the practice.
Since the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, the British government has made great efforts to remind the public that the UK’s future is as an independent nation in charge of its own destiny. Some observers believe this has muddied the government’s thinking, and driven it to take counterproductive steps – including a confused position on whether the UK should have taken part in an EU-wide effort to procure more ventilators.
The government claimed the reason it missed out on the program was merely due to a breakdown in communication, rather than an ideological opposition to EU-wide initiatives at a time when the UK was forging its own path.
Some analysts don’t buy that explanation. “Brexit has almost certainly influenced this determination to not look like we’re working with European countries. The response to questions about the German testing system has been extremely hostile,” says Anand Menon, professor of European and international politics at King’s College London.
“There would have been no downside to working with the Europeans on procurement, but the government has been floundering on why it didn’t. I suspect it partly had something to do with this political position that we don’t need the EU.”
Menon isn’t alone in this view. Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, believes that the government has “absolute disdain for anything that comes from outside the country,” and has “has ignored WHO [World Health Organization] advice, disregarded the European Centre for Disease Control, and ignored the experiences of other countries.”
Scally also believes that a single-minded approach to the crisis goes part of the way to explain why lessons from abroad have featured so little in the UK’s daily press briefings on the coronavirus pandemic. “There’s a very clear view it would be unhelpful to the government if there are reported examples of what is working abroad – and you can see that in their briefings there is very little from the extensive experience abroad.”
He points to a government report published at the start of March, which stated: “Expectations of how the Government will react will be set by media reports of public health strategies in other countries. This increases the risk of public concern if interventions that are perceived to be effective are not applied.”
CNN approached Downing Street for comment in response to these criticisms, but had not received a reply by the time of publication.
It’s no secret that Brexit is making the UK’s ability to handle this pandemic uniquely difficult, on both a political and practical level. By the end of June, Johnson’s government has a huge decision to make: Whether or not it wishes to extend the Brexit transition period, due to expire on December 31.
The advantage of seeking an extension is largely practical. The UK still imports a huge amount of medical supplies, fresh food, toilet paper and other things that are essential in a crisis from EU member states. Because the transition period still allows for frictionless between the UK and the EU, it means that these things can leave ports across Europe in the morning and be on shelves or in hospitals that afternoon. That has proven quite useful during this unprecedented crisis for the UK and given the fact trade talks with the EU are not currently happening, might continue to be useful later down the line.
The disadvantage of extending is largely political. The price of frictionless trade is a loss of political dignity. If the UK is forced to extend the transition period until the end of 2021, that’s another year in which the UK would still obey EU rules and pay into EU budgets but without any say in policy. A vassal state, if you will. Which is why the government’s official position is that virus or no virus, the UK will stick to its Brexit timetable.
Which means that the government must make a calculation on what is more important: Ensuring it can still import medical supplies tests and from Europe, or keeping to a timetable that delivers Brexit in full by the end of 2020.
The government argues that it is beefing up the UK’s ability to deal with the crisis by increasing its testing facilities and encouraging British factories to make ventilators and hand sanitizer rather than cars and drinks. It also claims that whatever deal it finally agrees with the EU will not prevent medical equipment entering the country. The trouble is, life isn’t that simple.
The first problem is that negotiations over the future relationship with the EU have stalled because of coronavirus. Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead negotiator, contracted Covid-19 and had to step back. His British counterpart, David Frost, also quarantined himself after showing symptoms. Even if their teams had been able to continue the talks, they couldn’t: Strict social distancing rules enacted in Belgium and the UK made it impossible for the two sides to meet.
Both sides admit that it’s impossible to have detailed trade talks when you can’t physically meet. Right now, no one can say with certainty what a trade deal, if any, will look like come the end of the year.
“If there isn’t the same seamless trade that’s obviously a problem. Friction means delay and delay means money,” says James Reade, associate professor of economics at the University of Reading. “This is especially true with medical equipment and medicines, because it needs additional regulatory approval,” he adds.
The government argues that the UK could press ahead with Brexit and unilaterally decide to remove checks and tariffs on medical equipment, allowing it to flow into the UK with zero friction. But while that’s technically possible, it comes with political difficulty for Johnson.
“In principle we can say we will take medical equipment with no checks, but it’s not an ideal situation and could provide a cover for illegal smuggling,” says Menon. “A cynic might argue that if Brexit was all about taking back control, opening up your borders and not imposing checks is a strange way of doing it.”
In practical terms, it is very hard to deny that refusing to extend the transition period will make the UK’s capacity to deal with coronavirus harder. And the government’s hardline stance on sticking to its Brexit timetable is alarming some in the medical profession.
However, some in Downing Street are now adding caveats to that hardline. “It’s 100% not desirable to anyone in government, but it’s hard to see much being done before June as the picture radically changes week by week,” a government source told CNN.
“There are people saying, common sense suggests it’s a matter of time before the government has to extend, and Johnson is a man who has changed his mind at the eleventh hour more than once,” says Menon. “The problem with transition is that you have to change your mind at the sixth hour,” he adds, referring to the fact that if the July 1 deadline is missed, there is no turning back.
So while there’s a glimmer of hope for those who want to see Brexit delayed, the immediate impact is that frontline services are having to stockpile equipment, gowns, gloves and medicines while they can and have no idea what world they will be operating in come January 2021.
It’s no one’s fault that the Brexit timetable has collided with the onset of coronavirus. But it’s made life difficult for a government already navigating its most complicated policy headache since the end of World War II. And while it might be politically convenient for Johnson and his government to not talk about Brexit, nothing changes the reality that the UK is hurtling towards July 1 with nothing substantial happening on what, before coronavirus, was the biggest political and diplomatic challenge facing the UK.
Johnson has just weeks to make another huge decision on the fate of his nation. It’s a decision that could ultimately play a huge part in defining his political legacy.
This story has been updated to correct the number of tests that Germany is carrying out.