Week in Review: A govt fixated on Brexit while covid runs rampant

Covid: All other government activity is wasteful
Covid: All other government activity is wasteful
Ian Dunt By

This is what happens when you select for dogmatism instead of competence. Yesterday, the drumbeat of refusal over extending Brexit transition grew in volume. Probably Dom Cummings got out of self-isolation and took control of comms. The messages had that easy staccato dimwit certainty which we have come to expect from him.

"We will not extend the transition period, and if the EU asks we will say no," the prime minister's spokesperson said. Classic Dom sentence, all false simplicity and posturing - a drunken bloke in a pub picking a fight with the bouncer. "Extending the transition period would simply prolong the negotiations, prolong business uncertainty, and delay the moment of control of our borders. It would also keep us bound by EU legislation at a point where we need legislative flexibility to manage the response to the coronavirus pandemic."

It is, as usual, the most godawful unseemly hogwash. Everything in the world has stopped. The planes no longer fly, national borders are closed, sport has been cancelled, TV programmes aren't made, films aren't released, shops have closed. And yet somehow Brexit talks are the one part of the old world which slides ahead regardless.

Are we expected to believe that these talks will make headway on the issues of fishing rights, customs checks, country-of-origin requirements, level-playing-field provisions and arrangements in Northern Ireland? Of course they will not. How could it possibly be a priority for anyone concerned? How could either side have the bandwidth to address them in a meaningful way? And if they did somehow go ahead, that would not be a victory. It would be a demonstration of utterly perverse priorities.


Even on its own terms, the No.10 statement made no sense at all. Business uncertainty is prolonged specifically by insisting on system-wide regulatory change in the trade networks this year, rather than accepting they will stay as is until 2021. Control of the borders is an irrelevance. Most national borders are closed anyway - except, funnily enough, Britain's, which remains more open than most. There is no EU legislation getting in the way of Britain's covid response. Quite the opposite. In fact we have failed to make use of EU procurement mechanisms for PPE which might have helped with some of the shortages we have now.

And yet this is how the government is spending its time - working on a Brexit negotiation which does not exist in practical terms, to accomplish a goal which is not desirable or possible, at a time when it requires every spare bit of capacity on handling the health emergency at home.

Hundreds die every day. We don't really know how many. The real figures will be higher than the official numbers. Many will have died from non-covid related problems which could not be addressed because of lack of NHS capacity or because they stayed at home.

And the death toll in care homes now seems certain to be much worse than we anticipated. An ITV poll of 2,800 carers found 42% said they were dealing with suspected covid cases, while another 28% were dealing with cases which had been officially confirmed. Twelve per cent were aware of staff who had tested positive.

Another poll for the Daily Mail found 1.4% of older residents in social care had died of suspected covid, which would translate into 5,300 additional deaths

And yet health secretary Matt Hancock insists only 15% of care homes have reported cases. He promised all residents and carers would be able to get tested and that PPE would be provided.

Another Hancock promise. But they are starting to look unreliable. Eighty per cent of those responding to the ITV survey said there had been no testing of staff. Seventy-five per cent said residents had not been tested. Fifty-four per cent of carers said they still did not have the PPE they needed.

How could it possibly be the case that the tests and equipment are not already in place? Since the very start, it was clear that covid could be easily transmitted and that it was particularly dangerous for the elderly. That makes institutional settings with elderly members particularly vulnerable, because they are not closed off - staff, relatives and many residents go in and out and can bring the virus with them.

And yet it was only this week that the health secretary pledged that everybody going from hospital to social care would be tested for covid. How could it take so long for that to become policy?

Why was Public Health England guidance on February 25th that "it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or the community will be infected"? How could it be possible to come to that conclusion, at any stage of this crisis, given what we have have always known about covid?

The testing regime is still not in place now. Writing in the Guardian today, Gianmarco Raddi, a swab tester in Milton Keynes, said they are still being underused. "Our shifts were meant to be excruciating 12-hour marathons. In reality, they are rather more like laid-back morning jogs," he said. "They told us we should prepare for a 24-hour operation, but we are done in four or five."

Why is our death rate so high? The government insists that international comparisons are not helpful. And of course they do, because it is when you do international comparisons that you see the difference between countries which locked down early, which prepared in advance, and which had the equipment and the logistical awareness to deploy it properly. How else do you account for the fact that Greece, which has an elderly population and far less money than the UK, has had 108 deaths so far, next to the UK's 14,576? How do you account for the fact that South Korea, which has a capital city as populous as London, has had 230?

Against that backdrop it is simply obscene for the government to be talking guff about pursuing Brexit talks, or engaging in its nonsense game of idiot macho posturing over EU legislation.

And it's not just obscene. It is criminally irresponsible. There is no moral basis whatsoever, no matter what your politics are, to be pursuing anything but covid. They should be ashamed to make even one statement which does not address it and explain, immediately, why they have failed so far and what they are doing to put it right.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out later this year.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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