Richard North, 02/03/2020  
 


Whether or not Covid-19 develops into a full-blown epidemic in the UK, this organism has already changed history. On the day that our officials sit down with their counterparts in Brussels to negotiate our "future relationship" with the EU, the front pages of the print media are dominated by virus news.

We are told that major cities could be shut down as part of the measures being considered by government if the crisis escalates, while Johnson appears on prime time television news, dressed up in a bright yellow, monogrammed Public Health England lab coat.

There is something peculiarly child-like about a prime minister so addicted to dressing up – perhaps as an infant he was not allowed to play doctors and nurses, and is making up for lost time. But even the fanboy gazette showed some discretion by not publicising any further Johnson's strictures about washing hands – as if we really needed (or wanted) such advice from the man occupying the highest political office in the land.

Not content with airing his dressing-up fantasies, Johnson wants us to sing "happy birthday" twice whilst hand-washing, as a means of measuring the time one should devote to the ritual. Was that nanny's advice, one wonders, or did he get it directly from the chief medical officer?

Something slightly more practical came from Peter Openshaw, Professor of Experimental Medicine from Imperial College London. He is styled as a government advisor on pandemics, but his advice to the people was that it was time to start stockpiling at least four weeks-worth of prescription medication as well as extra provisions bought during weekly shops.

If that wasn't an invitation to indulge in "panic buying", as it is called, I don't know what is. But those who stocked up in anticipation of a hard Brexit last year might simply be able to re-designate (or repurpose) their hoarded goods – same shit, different label, even if we have to add hand sanitiser to the list. For Brexit, now read coronavirus.

But that means that the piece I wrote for Sunday, complaining that we were entering into negotiations on one of the most important policy issues of the century, where it was also one of the least scrutinised in the national media.

Even before the virus took hold of the media imagination, it was hard enough getting it to focus on Brexit-related issues, and especially anything of a technical nature. Now, with interest graduating to obsession, we have no chance of getting any sense out of the fourth estate. The virus has won, and Brexit has lost.

Little will be coming out of Brussels today or for the rest of the week as negotiators lock horns, and all eyes today will be on Johnson chairing his first COBRA committee on coronavirus preparedness measures. One trusts we will not have to suffer his rendition of "happy birthday" as he dispenses more unwanted advice on personal hygiene.

One directly relevant issue is the UK's continued participation in the EU's Early Warning and Response System (EWRS), a web-based platform linking the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and public health authorities in EU/EEA countries responsible for measures to control serious cross-border threats to health, including communicable diseases.

The system has restricted access granted by the European Commission to a competent authority or authorities responsible at national level for notifying alerts and determining the measures required to protect public health.

But, now that the UK is no longer a Member State of the European Union, the provisions of Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2017/253 and Decision No 1082/2013/EU no longer apply to it.

The fanboy gazette is recording that Downing Street and the Department of Health are "locked into a row" about whether the UK should seek continued membership of this system, with senior health advisers warning that our leaving it would put public health at risk.

However, we are told, the British negotiating team – under the direct influence of Johnson - does not want to blur the UK's request for a basic, Canada-style trade deal. Thus, every add-on requested by the UK would risk giving the EU leverage to demand post-Brexit alignment. No wonder Johnson wants us focused on singing "happy birthday".

The indications are, though, that participation in the EWRS and the related coordination measures is open only to EU Member States and Efta/EEA States. Not even Switzerland is a participating member, although it is seeking access to the early-warning system as part of its measures to tackle the coronavirus epidemic.

A recent Reuters report (linked above), tells us that access to the EWRS is hindered by an impasse in protracted talks with the EU "because of disagreement over a treaty that foresees Switzerland routinely adopting single-market rules, among other things, to preserve favoured-trading status". The situation, it says, "could serve as a warning to Britain".

In actuality, we remain part of the system until the end of the transition period but, within the context of EU law, as currently drafted, there is no provision for third country participation. Although, apparently, a deal giving Switzerland access is ready for signature as part of a broader health pact with the EU, that will doubtless require changes to EU law.

As to the UK, given the current atmosphere and the determination of the UK to do its own thing, it is unlikely that the EU would entertain an application from London to stay within the system.

For the time being, though, while we remain in the system, public health officials have more pressing concerns. But the very fact that we are at risk of dropping out gives a further dimension to what is at stake if Johnson insists on playing hardball with the EU.

Perhaps the best thing that could happen in the immediate future is for one or more of the negotiation team to test positive for the virus, forcing a 14-day lockdown as isolation is enforced. An unbroken fortnight together in a locked room might yield more results than the current programme, even if the UK time is heavily eroded by repeated renditions of "happy birthday".

Nevertheless, even such a creative solution is hardly likely to resolve the ugly situation developing on the Greek border, where Turkish president Erdogan has allowed thousands of refugees to congregate, as a means of exerting pressure on the EU and Nato to support him in his dispute with Syria.

Where this could go seriously belly-up – even more so than at present – is if coronavirus infection is detected in the refugee community. At the very least, this could galvanise opposition to the EU's already flaky refugee policy, and create serious stresses within the Union. But it could also precipitate moves in the UK to close its borders with EU Member States, creating actual physical isolation to add to the growing sense of spiritual isolation.

And, with all that going on, there is barely any chance of a rational appraisal of our Brexit options. Swamped by the bigger picture, we will have difficulty even focusing on the issues, almost to the extent that one fears that important decisions will go by default.

At least, though, there is something we can appreciate in the media. The Mail on Sunday has started its serialisation of Booker's Groupthink book. – with a further instalment next week.

From this we learn that "victims of groupthink" may be convinced intellectually that their view is right. But their belief cannot be tested in a way which could confirm it beyond doubt. It is simply based on a picture of the world as they imagine it to be, or, more to the point, would like it to be.

Heaven knows what sort of a world Johnson imagines, other than it is populated by compliant serfs happily singing "happy birthday" as the approved device to ward off infection, while he dons his latest fancy dress costume. With a man like that at the helm, what can possibly go wrong?






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