Richard North, 04/03/2020  
 


Since M. Barnier says that the EU-UK trade talks are "going well" so far, I suppose we can all sit back and relax until the first of what will probably be many crises. In the meantime we can enjoy the coronavirus show, where we are treated to the sight of the Chancellor of the Exchequer washing his hands (pictured) – although he doesn't appear to be singing "happy birthday".

Nevertheless, the effect of this display of virtue was somewhat reduced by the appearance of visible soiling on the tiled splashback, and the use of conventional pillar taps (which themselves had signs of visible soiling).

This, plus the wearing of wristbands, rather goes to underline that the adoption of a high-intensity hand-washing regime in what is otherwise a contaminated environment is likely to be ineffective. And unless users have had training (and practice) in aseptic routines, the likelihood is that efforts to reduce microbial loading on the skin will be of limited effect.

From all appearances, therefore, hand washing rituals have become Johnson's "purple banana" – an apparently meaningful measure which, for want of something effective, can reduce the feeling of powerlessness when confronted with something as awe-inspiring as an epidemic.

One can see why this is such a favoured option though. As John Crace remarks, "if there's one thing Boris knows something about it's washing his hands. Over the years he's washed his hands of almost everything: family, children, friends, colleagues, morals, scruples".

Nevertheless, despite Pontius Boris's enthusiastic hand washing, with a disease such as this, where the infective agent is apparently highly communicable, probably the only effective measure is the "lockdown". Communities have to be kept in isolation and human interaction must be minimised.

So far, the Johnson administration has set its face against this, so it needs a "purple banana" in an attempt to build public confidence. And it certainly seems to be working, as shortages of hand sanitiser are being reported. The bottle of Carex of the size featured in the photograph, retailing in local supermarkets for about 80p, is currently priced at £13 on ebay.

One upside of Brexit here is that government stockpiles of medicine, bought in as part of last year's "no-deal" preparations, will be put to good use, so there is unlikely to be any immediate shortages of essential drugs.

That apart, confidence is hardly improved by the publication of the action plan. This tells us, inter alia that, should the transmission of the virus become established in the UK population, the police would concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order.

One wonders whether there is anyone in government who actually realises that the police have long ago stopped investigating almost all crime, including burglary, car theft and fraud, leaving them all the time in the world to deal with online "hate crime", with particular reference to "transphobia".

According to the Guardian, though, police activity could be curtailed even further. Investigations into some murders would be halted and 999 response times extended under contingency plans to help forces cope with a severe epidemic.

Response times to crimes such as burglaries would be increased, as there is no legally set time to attend; some proactive work would be postponed, such as against gangs and serious organised crime with those officers being diverted to frontline response; work on past crimes such as sexual abuse would be halted; and officers would be pulled out of neighbourhood policing. Even then, for most of the time, nobody would actually notice.

Maybe it would not need to come to this if the authorities reacted to the pattern of illness. Where most of the young(er) victims are only mildly affected, perhaps the best thing to do would be to isolate the "at risk" groups and then let the virus rip through the community until herd immunity reaches about 80 percent and the epidemic peters out naturally.

However, almost anything is preferable to the tedium engendered by the media coverage of Brexit, where a limited number of issues are rehearsed, often with the aid of an equally limited group of "experts", so that nothing new has been said for months, and the debate has barely progressed.

If anything, coronavirus has added interest to the Brexit debate in that we can now choose as to what precisely will bring Johnson down – his mishandling of the trade talks, or the collapse of the NHS when (or if) it is exposed to a full-scale Covid-19 epidemic.

John Crace, in a serious mood, clearly opts for the latter. Attending Johnson's press conference yesterday, he says it rapidly became clear that the government's emergency plan was actually remarkably thin. Something that had been hastily cobbled together over a couple of days and didn’t really stand up to close examination.

There was nothing, he says, on what role the army might have to play, how health and social care workers could be protected, which hospital procedures would have to be delayed and what financial provision would be made for workers in the gig economy who weren't covered by employment law. It was all just a bit hit and hope.

Given that we also have an ICU doctor in the Guardian openly declaring that "the NHS isn't ready for the coronavirus crisis", it looks very much as if the virus is a strong favourite for bringing down the government.

By contrast, although we have the ineffably stupid Liz Truss, talking up the supposed benefits of a trade deal with the United States – claiming that "we are standing on the threshold of a transatlantic trade boom" – it will be some time before the public at large realises the extent to which we have been "had", by which time many virus victims will be beyond caring.

One thing, for the moment, that we don't have to worry about - courtesy of Greek border guards, with the assistance of the EU's Frontex officials – is being overrun by refugees being used by Turkish president Erdogan as a bargaining chip. In days gone past, some of these would have been let in and the UK would then have been under pressure to admit a quota.

Clearly, though, patience has worn thin and even the Greek coastguards have been turning away refugee-filled rubber boats, and have even been filmed shooting into the water alongside a boat, to encourage its occupants to go back from whence they came.

Recently, Ursula von der Leyen has visited the area and sent "a strong message of support to Greece in its attempts to stop migrants crossing its border from Turkey". Pointedly, with at least 24,000 people having been stopped from crossing the border since Saturday, she called Greece a "European aspida [shield]".

The UK may well be reminded of that by Michel Barnier as the talks in Brussels progress, with a further reminder that there are many thousands of refugees already in France and the rest of Europe who are just waiting for the opportunity to cross over to England. If trade is not the lever for ongoing cooperation, the EU might suggest that collective measures against illegal immigrants necessitate us working together.

That in itself may bring home to Johnson and his henchmen that we cannot completely distance ourselves from our European neighbours and that, in this respect, we need them more than they need us. That the same should apply to the control of communicable diseases should go without saying but the treatment of the EWRS issue does not exactly inspire confidence.

But as Pete observes, no-one really knows what the UK negotiating strategy is, so confidence is becoming a rare commodity. And since, even under the best of circumstances, the end of the transition period is likely to leave us with much unfinished business, the end of the year is likely to bring its own political tensions.

Here again, there is another element of convergence between coronavirus and Brexit. Insofar as the Johnson administration is undergoing a political honeymoon, its handling of the epidemic, as it develops, will temper public sentiment. It may even give a lacklustre opposition some room to score political points.

Mishandling of the epidemic – in an area where it is very difficult for governments to perform well – may adversely affect public perceptions of competence which may then rub off later in the year when the butcher's bill for Brexit has to be paid. By then, Johnson may well have lost some of his Teflon qualities and attempts to blame the EU for Brexit failures may not wash – hand sanitiser and "happy birthday" notwithstanding.

We might then be seeing how he deals with sustained unpopularity – which is not well in John Crace's view. "Boris is essentially a good time guy with a penchant for the glib one-liner", he says.

"He hates being the bearer of bad news. He hates even more the idea that people might hold him responsible for the decisions that could cost lives. He just wants to keep things light and breezy. One of the things he had most liked about Brexit was that at least no one was that likely to die from it. Or not so anyone would notice". Now it is all "getting just a bit too real".

On the other hand, if Rafael Behr has got it right, it will be the trade talks that will test his bombast. The likelihood is that, if coronavirus hasn't got there first, it will test it to destruction.






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