Richard North, 15/07/2020  

There are more talks today between EU and UK delegations, although one wonders why the two sides keep up the charade. In a way, though, it's probably a variation on musical chairs, where the first side to call off the talks is deemed the loser – notwithstanding that everyone is the loser the way this game is being played.

It's a fairly reasonable assumption that today's talks are going nowhere. Usually, there is some advance publicity - as with last week when there were carefully crafted leaks about a possible deal on fishing. But this week, there's been absolutely nothing, leaving most of the media free to fill their space with stories about facemasks.

There is, of course, always an exception to the rule and this time it’s Indy 100 which is happily chirping about Brexiteers being left 'in a panic', now that Brexit’s true meaning is being clearly outlined.

The paper is referring to the government's information campaign, telling us that potential changes to travel insurance and passport rules for UK holidaymakers after Brexit are being highlighted in a series of adverts starting this week, and "it has Brexiteers furious".

Apparently, the cause of this "fury" – or is it "panic"? – is that those who voted to leave the EU during the referendum (when else could they have voted?) are finally realising what Brexit would actually look like for Britons.

Some voters are "feeling the burn" as the government prepares to start rolling out the "UK's new start: let's get going" campaign via text messages, TV, radio, online, print, and billboards. It will advise Britons in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK, as well as UK and EU businesses, on how to prepare for the end of the transition period on 31 December.

This time we actually get to see one of the adverts (pictured) and one can see what the paper means about "feeling the burn". There is, however, a hint of Soviet Union propaganda iconology, which makes you wonder whether the government is really on the ball here.

There is an interesting issue here, though – if, as Indy 100 avers, giving people information about TransEnd invites measures of "panic" or "fury", presumably amongst the constituency which would naturally support the government, then the best tactic, surely, would be to say as little as possible for as long as possible.

If most people, for instance, will never find out for themselves the full impact of the Government's version of Brexit, there is no need for Johnson to make a rod for his own back by spending government money on telling them what's coming. There is always a chance that people will blame coronavirus if they are not told otherwise.

To judge from the Telegraph's response to the new facemask ruling, the government is going to need every advantage it can get, as the idea of being forced to wear facemasks in shops - just as the daily reports of deaths are tracking towards zero – has not gone down particularly well.

The government thus not only has to think in terms of the relative economic damage done by Brexit and Covid-19, but also the publicity impact. If the natural constituency is being mortally offended by measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, then there is little point in piling on the agony by telling people that they can't take their pets on holiday so easily, and similar inconveniences.

There is also talk in some quarters of the possible combined effect of flu and Covid-19 through the winter, with fears of high mortality levels – bringing substantially more deaths than we've seen so far with the current round of the pandemic. Once again, it doesn't seem logical to rack up the agony by talking up the effects of Brexit.

The problem for the government, though, is that despite all its brave talk about the opportunities that Brexit will bring, the real-world, tangible effects are all negative. The brave new world of global free trade agreements and freeports on the doorstep lies in the future, and there is nothing bankable as yet.

If we had a government with any imagination – to say nothing of vision – it might be looking at the rapidly changing world in which we live, and exploiting more prosaic opportunities which have direct impact on people's lives.

For instance, through the lockdown period, thousands of people have confronted the novel experience of working from home. For many, conventional working practices may have changed forever and, as Pete writes, we're looking at "the end of normal".

Not everybody though, can cope so easily with change, and there are those who find home working a challenge. And while we should not be looking to the government to provide answers for everything, there are serious changes needed to planning and housing policies if changes in employment patterns are to be sustained.

But the really interesting thing is that, despite the collapse of economic activity brought about by the lockdown, the sky hasn't fallen in. For sure, many businesses have been sorely disrupted, personal debt and insecurity has multiplied and unemployment is set to soar, but there are also those who have done well out of the situation.

The one really big opportunity, though, comes with the chance to re-evaluate the role of GDP as a measure of economic activity and therefore (indirectly) of prosperity and happiness. A lot of people have been finding that they can live fulfilled, and highly productive lives at far lower rates of economic activity.

In some instance, we are verging on "The Good Life" philosophy, made so entertainingly famous by the '70s sitcom, and could certainly benefit from revisiting some of the economic ideas that went with the "Small is Beautiful" concept.

Here, I've been taken with the recent experience of high levels of Covid-19 in meat packing plants – all built to very rigorous EU hygiene standards. Yet, for complex technical reasons, these plants are an anathema for good meat production. They are also foul and, as we have seen, unhealthy places to work in.

Before the intervention of EU law, we had many more small, artisan slaughterhouses, none of which could meet EU hygiene standards, but not only were they more hygienic – in the real sense – than these massive, EU-approved plants, they produced far better quality and tastier meat, albeit at higher cost.

In this instance, the way the "new" paradigm could work is that, freed from the tyranny of pointless EU rules, we would be able to buy better meat, compensating for the price increase by eating it less often. I would certainly trade quantity for quality.

Simplistic though this example might be, it could point to the way to best deal with Brexit – and the fallout from Covid-19 for that matter. We should not be trying to replace, on a one-for-one basis, losses with equivalent gains, procured elsewhere. We should, instead, be trying to rethink, at every level, how we do things, how we live, and what we expect by way of rewards.

The one thing that has become certain is that, for better or worse, is we are not going to be able to rebuild our post-Brexit world in exactly the same way that it was before, any more than we can do so with the post-Covid world.

Taken together, these two events have changed our lives forever. But, if our lives will be different, that doesn't necessarily mean they have to be worse.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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