Boris is trying to cheer us all up. There are announcements that we can go back to things we used to do, and most importantly for many people, go on holiday.
But we have also had some gloomy news lately. Health professionals are laying into the government about their mishandling of the pandemic. The editor of the Lancet, a respected medical journal, called the handling of Covid-19 “catastrophic”.
We certainly seem to have done worse than other European countries. At the beginning of the outbreak Professor Stephen Powis, the medical director of NHS England, made the assertion that keeping below 20,000 deaths would be a “good outcome”. As of 1st July we are over 43,500 at the latest government count.
Then there are the economic forecasts of what could happen next. Gross Domestic Product fell by 20% in April, and the consensus among economic think tanks is we are likely to have double the rate of unemployment when the coronavirus outbreak is over. It is not likely the economy will simply ‘bounce back’ to the way it was.
People will be very cautious, and less likely to make big purchases. But there is also a more subtle process where companies have learnt to manage with fewer staff: they may not be so willing to employ as many people as they had before. British Airways are blatant about it. They want a smaller, lower-paid work force. Other employers are doing things more quietly.
On top of this, it is becoming ever more likely that we will have to cope with a no-deal Brexit. Despite representations from employers and trade unions, the government seems unwilling to compromise in order to protect vital flows of trade. Trade with Europe is necessary for north east England, as 60% of its exports (by value) are to the EU .
Our supply lines to the continent have held up well during the pandemic, with no real food shortages thanks to the efforts of long-distance lorry drivers. It would seem foolish to disrupt them all now when the economy is in such a weak position. Negotiating an extension is not betraying Brexit: Brexit has already happened. The original withdrawalagreement provided for an extension of up to two years to sort things out.
Why is the government being so intransigent? There seems to be a common thread running through the way it thinks: what I would term British, or more accurately English, exceptionalism. This has been reflected in the way it has handled the pandemic too; everything is ‘world beating’.
Do you remember the ‘world beating’ contact tracing app that Boris Johnson announced was going to be tested on the Isle of Wight? It was quietly abandoned a couple of weeks ago because it simply did not work.
Other countries had developed systems which did work! There is no shame in acknowledging that other people know how to do something, and we can learn from them. As Martin Kettle pointed out recently in the Guardian, Lloyd George travelled to Germany in 1908 to study Bismarck’s social insurance scheme before launching his own scheme here.
Boris Johnson and his followers have a very selective reading of history, particularly the second world war; their reading shows a heroic island nation which stood alone and won. In reality it was American aid, which Churchill was desperate for, and the Russian army that got us through.
Johnson believes Britain must do things differently. He disregarded both World Health Organization advice and examples of successful tracking and tracing in other countries so we could do things our way. The results are there for all to see.
The government continues to talk about fantastic opportunities as a world trading nation, without being clear what these are. It is normally most beneficial to trade with countries nearest to you, not those a long way away. Whatever arrangements we make with other countries, we still need easy access to the European markets which are nearby, and where almost half of the UK’s exports currently go.
The British people voted for Brexit. I accept that. But it is common sense to apply for an extension to the transition period, simply to work out a successful trade agreement which will protect our industries, in the north east and in the country as a whole. In these unstable and uncertain times, it is not only common sense but also crucial to our survival that we work with those countries nearest to us. That’s the only way we will be able to bounce back.