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Coronavirus: shifting ground

2020-03-18 06:51:10

The news that the next round of Brexit talks has been cancelled is significant. And it is important to note that the round has been cancelled, not postponed, reflecting the reality of the coronavirus crises.

But the delay in the talks is only one issue which has implications for the transition period and Johnson's plans to conclude a trade deal by the end of the year. The Covid-19 pandemic is not only having a health impact, but also massive economic effect, changing the world in a way that, even a few months ago, we could not have predicted.

Even as it stands, an EU official is saying that "there will simply be no bandwidth to prepare for a no-deal [outcome] on the UK side", and even an agreed Canada-style trade deal would require British companies to prepare for a new era of extra costs and complex paperwork from January 2021, just as they were struggling to cope with the effects of the virus.

In any event, the global trading environment is changing, possibly irrevocably, which also has huge implications for the European Union's Single Market. What made absolute sense for improving trade performance has less attraction when the movement of goods, services and people is also an open portal for disease spread, illustrated by the speed with which Member States are closing their borders.

Thus, the ground is shifting under the intellectual foundations that underpin our trade relations and our negotiations with Brussels. Even if we are prepared to go ahead with talks, the EU itself will doubtless change as a result of this epidemic, as will its ambitions. And that will increasingly lead to a reluctance to make a deal with the UK, which may remain until the EU has decided on its own future.

Predictably, the Johnson administration is insisting that there will be no delay to the final Brexit deadline at the end of December, but this may be as much bravado as anything else. The outcome may be a series of interim deals, in order to maintain relations at a basic level, which then have to be revisited in the new year.

But if the pandemic is continuing to run, with the close down in communications and the closure of borders that that entails, there will be very little need for an all-embracing trade deal. Most of the routine trade will have collapsed and the routine movement of people will have ceased.

Individual national governments will also have their own concerns and with the effect of Covid-19 on the UK GDP being estimated in the order of 15 percent (far more serious than the hit we expected to take with Brexit), our own government will have far more pressing things to do than pursue the Brexit agenda. This has slipped way down the order of priorities.

One of the issues that may be demanding attention in the Johnson administration is its own survival. For the moment, the full health impact of Covid-19 has yet to be felt, but when the hospitals fill and the morgues start overflowing, such residual support that Johnson has over the management of the epidemic (already down to 35 percent) may evaporate completely. Even his tribal loyalists may desert him if it gets to the point where it is evident that Johnson has lost control.

As it stands, people are beginning to take their own actions, ignoring government policy. A particular example of that is the closure of schools. So many teachers are staying at home and parents making their individual decisions to withdraw children that the system is falling apart. Soon the government will have to act, simply in response to public pressure.

Where we then stand with other issues will be interesting. The government, for instance, is taking entirely the wrong approach with its emergency expansion plans for the NHS, relying on the well-tested "surge" programme used to deal with epidemics of winter flu.

By this means it can increase the capacity of the system by 20 or 30 percent. For an unsustainably short period, it can go even higher. In so doing though, the government may have under-estimated the potential for the case-load in this epidemic to increase beyond the capacity of the NHS to deal with it, even when placed on an emergency footing.

What they clearly don't seem to appreciate either is that once complex systems such as general hospitals reach saturation point, their operational capacity cannot be maintained at the peak level. Rather, as pressure increases, the system starts to break down and capacity deteriorates sharply.

In order to deal with peak loads far in excess of capacity, the government should not be using the hospital network to manage its surge response. No general hospital has been designed to operate as an infectious disease unit, handling large numbers of cases, and for this function to be shoehorned in, alongside existing functions, is to invite disaster. In fact, hospitals are struggling long before the peak is reached.

Instead, the government should be requisitioning leisure centres, community centres and other buildings which can take large numbers of people, and converting them into emergency treatment centres, keeping the infection out of the hospitals. By all means raid the hospitals for staff and equipment (much of which is portable), but do not overwhelm them with patients they can't handle.

The implications of a breakdown are profound, and the effects could be far worse than has been feared under "no deal" Brexit conditions. Here, one might be confronting the spectre of large numbers of sick people being turned away, untreated, from hospitals.

With many people out of work, short of cash and losing faith in the competence of the government, this is a recipe for a breakdown of law and order. With police numbers cut through illness, and resources diverted to shoring up the system, their ability to cope will be limited, opening the way to major riots, looting and open gang warfare. Under these circumstances, the entire system of government might be under threat, reaching down to local government level where even the provision of basic services might fail.

If this might sound a tad melodramatic, one has to recall how dramatically things have changed in a few short weeks, since this epidemic began to take hold. After all, it was only on 31 January that we saw the report of two Covid-19 cases being confirmed in York, before the disease had even been given a name.

One might also recall that then, Chris Whitty not yet the household name that he has become asserted that the NHS was "extremely well-prepared for managing infections". That is one of many of his statements that has not stood the test of time very well, but one also takes note of his claim at the time that the NHS "was quickly trying to identify any close contacts the two patients had to prevent further spread". Therein is a tacit recognition of the vital role of contact tracing in outbreak control, a procedure that has almost been completely abandoned.

That this is the case is pointed out by NHS Consultant Mark Gallagher, who writes that: "They are abandoning the basic principles for dealing with an epidemic, which are to test whenever possible, trace contacts and contain. Almost all individual physicians I know feel that what they are doing is wrong".

Less than seven weeks in, the picture above of Trafalgar Square at the height of a working day tells its own story. And less visible, recorded cases now stand at 1,950 people in the UK despite the lack of testing of self-isolates and NHS staff a record increase of 407 from the day before with the total number of confirmed reported deaths in England at 67.

Unlike previous epidemics, though, we have an analogue in Italy, which is almost exactly two weeks ahead of us. And with 31,506 cases and 2,503 deaths, that is our signpost as to where we will be in two weeks' time, with the disease rate already threatening local saturation when the cases prove to be unevenly distributed, with the first peak expected in London.

As Pete points out, by then the one guarantee is that nobody is going to be talking about Brexit. The progress of the epidemic will have our absolute undivided attention, especially as the epicentre will be in London which is the only place that exists when the legacy media get excited (or it snows).

For my part, the cancellation of the trade talks vindicates my decision to focus this blog on coronavirus and, unless or until there are any major developments on Brexit, I'll keep the focus there as we watch the government's bumbling attempts to manage the epidemic.

After all, if this is something that has the potential to kill me and mine, I want to see it coming.