COVID-19 caught the United Kingdom at a time of political instability. The Conservative Party confirmed its Brexit withdrawal from the European Union on January 31st, 2020. However, this did not entail immediate chaos in the nation, since the U.K. retains its place in the European Union until January 2021 thanks to a transitional period where current rules continue to apply.
Despite this free pass to focus on one crisis at a time, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has doubled down on Brexit ideology – deliberately distancing the U.K. from European policy and assistance from day one. Politics of isolationism and British exceptionalism in relation to Europe have defined the U.K.’s response at a time where international cooperation is of unprecedented importance. A pandemic knows no borders; information, equipment, and containment policy which originates from outside the U.K. today has the potential to save British lives tomorrow.
Criticism of the Conservative government’s response to the pandemic is often met with calls “not to politicize a pandemic” – but so far, the Party’s response has been to do exactly this. By aligning policy in opposition to the E.U.’s member states and declining opportunities for collective assistance, the U.K. government is sacrificing its own citizens’ lives to avoid a situation where the benefits of E.U. membership are revealed. The government is choosing to save the face of Brexit over safeguarding its citizens, inadvertently proving the catastrophic effects of British isolationism along the way and forecasting a grim future for post-Brexit Britain.
The most recent example of political posturing over appropriate action took place on January 25th, when the government confirmed it had declined participation in an E.U. scheme to secure bulk orders of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE). The scheme aims to use the E.U.’s single market buying power to provide equipment in the fastest, cheapest manner with the least possible admin time. Phase 1 has since been completed, obtaining a considerable amount of “masks type 2 and 3, gloves, face-shields, surgical masks and overalls” – all which are desperately needed in Britain.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran rightfully identified the situation as prioritizing “Brexit over breathing,” while Ed Davey, acting co-leader of the Lib Dems, denounced the reports as “deeply disturbing.” In an interview with The Independent, Davey went on to say: “International solidarity is crucial to protecting the UK […] The PM must not let Brexit ideology dictate his approach to Coronavirus. People’s lives must come first.”
This foolhardy refusal of assistance was then made worse by government dishonesty. Downing Street initially claimed “the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join,” leaving the door open for blame to fall on E.U. bureaucracy. However, official minutes seen by The Guardian proved a British official had already taken part in four meetings to discuss the E.U. bulk-buy projects, with the earliest of these meetings taking place in January. The E.U. then clarified that the invitation was still open – before it was refused again, on grounds that the U.K. was “no longer a member” and was “making [its] own efforts.”
All of this came amidst a PPE shortage for U.K. hospitals and carers which had escalated from crisis to farce. On March 27th, MedFet UK – a company specializing in medical fetish roleplay – announced it was contacted by the NHS in a desperate search for more protective equipment. This is just one of many examples of the absurd and unconventional alternatives forced by government inaction.
Dr. Rinesh Parmar, chair of The Doctors’ Association UK, stated that “the government hasn’t kept its side of the bargain with NHS staff by not having enough PPE available to safeguard the health of doctors and nurses” – many of whom are risking their lives for proportionally meagre wages. NHS workers are expected to have had a pay cut of 12% relative to inflation by 2021 due to government-imposed wage restraints. In addition, doctors and nurses are one of the most at-risk groups for coronavirus deaths, due to the effects of exhaustion on the body’s immune system and the high viral load from repeated exposure to infected patients – a problem only worsened by a lack of PPE.
Ventilator capacity represents another key area of concern. The NHS currently has 8,000 of the devices, one of the lowest per capita in Europe. Estimates forecast an additional 30,000 are needed for the peak of April’s outbreak. The government has ordered the production of ventilators within the U.K. The companies producing these are not already existing medical supply manufacturers, but giant industrial corporations such as Dyson and JCB.
A deeper look at the relationship between the Conservative Party and these companies reveals the logic behind this decision. Dyson, from whom the government has ordered 10,000 ventilators, is a long time Conservative Party member and donor. Moreover, they are one of many Conservative-aligned companies benefiting from Brexit profiteering. The Guardian identified James Dyson as one of 16 British billionaires to add $2.1 billion to their combined net worth following 2019’s general election. Similarly, JCB gifted £15,000 directly to Boris Johnson in 2019 to signal support for his Conservative Party leadership bid. In February 2020, the BBC reported that “more than £10m has flowed into Tory coffers from JCB, on top of more than a million from Mark Bamford, a member of the family that owns the digger maker” over the last decade.
While the government used the pandemic as an excuse to play favourites under the guise of bolstering British industry, countless practical alternatives were declined. Steven Mifsud, head of Direct Access, told Nantwich News he had sourced 5,000 ventilators and millions of units of face masks and other PPE through partners in the United Arab Emirates. After five days, the Department of Health had not attempted to purchase them. Andrew Raynor – of MEC Medical, a leading manufacturer and worldwide supplier of oxygen therapy and related equipment – told BBC Newsnight the government did not even respond to his offer to make ventilators. Both sources are British companies able to provide supplies quickly, in contrast to inexperienced Dyson who is reported to have hundreds of engineers working to create these ventilators from scratch.
April 1st revealed these manufacturing deals had culminated in a first batch consisting of only 30 new ventilator units – 0.1% of the number forecast to be required. This demonstrates why the U.K. needs to put aside political issues and explore all possible avenues for gaining equipment, particularly the second phase of the declined E.U. scheme. Furthermore, the deceit displayed by the Conservative government must not go unnoticed. If the Conservatives are willing to lie about their rejection of desperately needed equipment until called out – and then still proceed to prioritize cronyism over practical national production – their actions must be evaluated in this light.
The effects of the U.K.’s stance against E.U. solidarity go back further than supply issues, however. March 17th saw the E.U. unify to close its combined borders against non-E.U. residents, part of realistic containment measures which had already seen many European nations close schools, non-essential businesses and issue lockdown laws. Interestingly, the U.K. declined to be part of the E.U.’s closed border response, demonstrating dubious commitment to the border control issue supposedly at the heart of Brexit.
In contradiction to E.U. containment, the U.K. floundered along with its ‘herd immunity’ strategy – a shakily-justified and scientifically unsound response that drew wide-ranging criticism. The strategy was scrapped on March 16th, after new simulations from Imperial College London displayed how badly hospitals would be overwhelmed by runaway transmission rates.
Despite these new figures, it was not until March 20th that vague social distancing measures crystalized into bar, restaurant and gym closures. It then took a further three days for a nationwide lockdown to be issued. The average time from contagion to death by COVID-19 is estimated at between 14 and 21 days. This means that of the 4,934 people confirmed dead in the U.K. by April 5th as a result of the virus, the majority are statistically likely to have contracted the disease before the government’s much-delayed lockdown. By taking the same precautionary measures as its continental neighbours, the U.K. could have spared thousands of preventable deaths.
The true impact of Brexit on the U.K.’s ability to deal with coronavirus goes back even further. In December 2019, freedom of information inquiries into 88 NHS hospital trusts revealed 22,600 E.U. nationals had left the service since the Brexit vote. This has led to the NHS being understaffed, as well as short of equipment, whilst haphazard containment measures worsen the strain – which could have been potentially mitigated by proper coordination with the E.U. The U.K. has been forced to make another logical concession to its muddled Brexit ideology, in order to retain the remaining non-British NHS workers. Home Secretary Priti Patel acknowledged that “doctors, nurses and paramedics from all over the world are playing a leading role in the NHS’ efforts to tackle coronavirus,” demonstrating how reliant the U.K. is upon international workers by extending their visas for a further year.
Healthcare is not the only sector that has underscored its reliance on foreign workers. Closed E.U. borders have given the U.K. a taste of life without migrant labor, as farmers fear masses of crops will rot in their fields due to reliance on E.U. pickers. According to the Office for National Statistics, 99% of 2018’s seasonal pickers originated from the E.U. Mass unemployment due to the virus has meant that charities such as Concordia have been able to muster a replacement workforce, but minimum wage pay and hard, repetitive labour will ensure many of these people seek alternative employment once these exceptional circumstances subside. The number of E.U. seasonal workers had dropped 17% in 2017 after the Brexit vote, with the number expected to drop again once restrictions on free movement are implemented.
These two situations alone demonstrate the U.K.’s reliance on foreign workers to keep its country afloat, undermining the myth of migrant workers ‘stealing jobs.’ In the interconnected world of 2020, Britain cannot truly be an island unto itself – this is a fact thrown into even sharper focus by the virus. The hope, however, is that this period of necessary national isolation will demonstrate how important the benefits of free movement are. The U.K. is witnessing a preview of the problems caused by nationalist isolation. This is the last opportunity to stop these temporary problems becoming permanent features.
Unfortunately, the only possible positives for the U.K. lie in this morbid process of learning hard lessons. The success of E.U. equipment procurement schemes are likely to highlight the U.K. government’s inadequate response. Meanwhile, the government’s efforts to avoid proving the benefits of E.U. membership only highlight how powerful a blow such an acknowledgment would be. U.K. citizens are dying unnecessarily to avoid unmasking Brexit as a political stunt driven by populism and harnessed by politicians at a huge practical cost.
As unsustainable growth continues and the threshold for runaway climate change approaches, the world will witness many more novel crises requiring unprecedented international cooperation. The coronavirus pandemic has proven that politics of division and nationalism are unsuitable for dealing with the challenges of a changing world, and it is critical that the lessons of this crisis are learned to prepare for the uncertain future ahead.