When Britain left the EU, Covid entered the UK.
On January 29, 2020, the first UK patients tested positive for coronavirus when two Chinese nationals from the same family staying at a hotel in York fell ill. Britain left the EU two days later, at 11pm on January 31, and Brexiteers packed Parliament Square to celebrate their “independence day”. Banners reading “Boris, we love you” were waved as Nigel Farage walked onto the stage to a jazzy rendition of “The Final Countdown” at full volume.
Since then, Brexit and Covid-19, those curious contemporaries, have often been considered together. In fact, shortly after the announcement that the UK medicines regulator approved the first covid vaccine, the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, claimed that it was “because of Brexit”. As the jab reached the arms of Britain, the refrain was repeated endlessly; and the connection is still disputed. Earlier this month, in the House of Commons, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said that “our ability to act quickly on vaccines… meant we were one of the first countries in the world to come out of lockdown. ”.
But with the official investigation already underway, Covid and Brexit share the headlines for reasons far less flattering to eurosceptics in the government.
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“The pandemic hit the UK just as it was leaving the European Union,” Hugo Keith KC noted in the run-up to testing sessions for the recent round of research. He further claimed that the preparations undertaken to mitigate the consequences of a no-deal Brexit had “crowded out and impeded some or perhaps most” of the preparations for the pandemic. According to KC, it was “clear” that the decision to leave the EU left us vulnerable when Covid struck in 2020.
Claire Mitchell KC, a lawyer speaking on behalf of Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Scotland, also said at the inquest that “the effects of Brexit” hampered Britain’s ability to cope with Covid.
And since yesterday, such statements have some ministerial, or rather ex-ministerial, support. Matt Hancock, once tasked with framing the vaccine through the lens of Brexit liberties, now testifies that official pandemic preparation was hampered by a focus on the threat of a “disorganized Brexit”.
During 2018-2019, the UK government was consumed by the prospect of leaving the EU without an agreement on the terms of exit. Hancock, who served as health secretary from July 2018 until resigning in June 2021 for breaking covid rules by kissing an assistant, said: “Of course I knew Brexit was an important part of the national debate and in the department you had to be prepared for it ”.
He even confirmed that no-deal Brexit planning meant resources needed to be reallocated in his department. Hugo Keith KC asked: “So you were aware and agreed that a number of jobs related to pan flu and HCIDs (high consequence infectious diseases) would have to be reduced or stopped?”
Hancock replied: “Yes, and I wasn’t enthusiastic about it, but I authorized it and the reason I authorized the general redevelopment of the department is because we have a very real and material threat in the event of a disorganized Brexit that we needed to do.” to be prepared”.
“There was a time when we had to move resources to prepare that in the summer I think in 2019 and we did it within the department, the plans to do it were drawn up by the team and I signed them,” he added.
In total, Hancock confirmed that almost 20 pandemic planning workflows were halted, reduced or halted entirely due to a shift in focus towards preparing for a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2018.
But Hancock, who campaigned to stay in the 2016 referendum, also highlighted some benefits of the UK leaving the EU with regard to pandemic planning. Revealing that the UK came “within hours” of running out of crucial medicines during the coronavirus pandemic, Hancock claimed no-deal Brexit planning and stockpiling was a key reason supplies “didn’t run out”. .
“The work done for a no-deal Brexit on drug supply chains was the difference between running out of drugs at the peak of the pandemic and not running out of drugs,” he said.
Covid-19 has taken on a broad mandate as it investigates Britain’s pandemic preparedness. In doing so, you have assumed the right to ask and answer the question: did Brexit help or hinder the UK’s response to the pandemic?
When the inquiry finally becomes an official response, we can probably expect a damning indictment of government priorities in the run-up to modern Britain’s worst public health crisis. The threat of a “disorganized Brexit” and its implications for government inaction in pandemic planning looks set to loom large.
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