The Guardian view on Brexit and Covid: a nation on the brink | Brexit

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As astronomers marvel over the “great conjunction” that sees the largest planets in our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, almost line up, the sights of political observers are fixed on a conjunction of a different sort. Brexit and Covid have been twinned throughout 2020 as the two biggest challenges facing the UK. But the emergence of a new strain of the virus in south-east England, leading to the re-imposition of a lockdown and the introduction of tough travel restrictions, all in the run-up to our departure from the EU, means previously distinct problems have come into disastrous alignment.

With just 10 days to go and still no trade deal, disruption to imports and exports – particularly in Kent where around a quarter of all goods from the EU arrive – has long been expected, whether or not a deal is finally hammered out. Indeed, the road haulage industry has been vocal in its protests at the lack of preparedness, and probable consequences. Now, the closure of the port of Dover due to a French ban on accompanied freight, because of fears that its passage could spread a more contagious variant of the virus, means the chaos has come early.

Around 12,000 goods vehicles were expected to cross the Channel to or from Dover on Monday. Many drivers are already stuck and face the possibility of not getting back to their families in time to celebrate. Seafood exporters warn of huge losses even if borders are reopened soon. While the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, put a brave face on the situation, suggesting that preparations for 1 January meant that the county was well placed to cope, the fear is that the conjunction of Brexit and the pandemic will make an already complicated situation worse.

That it didn’t have to be like this goes without saying. The Guardian argued in March that, in view of the economic shock and policymaking demands of the virus, the transition period ought to be extended. That is not due to a desire to put Brexit off. The point was, and remains, that the government should be concentrating on its response to this emergency. The suggestion has been repeated many times, including by Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on Monday. Yet, not only has the UK government rejected every proposal to ease the Brexit timetable to give ministers a chance to improve their dismal management of the virus, it has arrogantly refused even to discuss it.

The situation now facing the UK is grave. The number of people hospitalised with Covid has risen to almost 19,000 – not far behind April’s peak. The NHS is under huge pressure, with hopes for next year resting on a successful vaccine rollout. So far, there is no evidence that the mutated form of the virus will render the vaccine less effective, but complacency could prove disastrous. Testing and tracing arrangements remain shambolic, even as the new, more contagious Covid strain means they are desperately needed – most urgently in Kent, where rapid testing is likely to be the fastest route to reopening cross-Channel transit.

With Christmas plans cancelled at short notice and warnings of a national lockdown to come, millions of people are disappointed and scared. Yet the government remains fixated on a 31 December exit from the EU. The prime minister reiterated in Monday’s press conference his view that the UK will “prosper mightily” even without a deal and told journalists that they should follow his example by being hopeful about the future. As France and the rest of the EU struggle to hold at bay a British variant of a deadly virus, it is hard to imagine circumstances less conducive to resolving the deadlock over fishing rights. Yet this is the conjunction we confront, under a prime minister who appears constitutionally unable to admit the dangers.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on Brexit and Covid: a nation on the brink | Brexit

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