So, what really happens if there’s ‘no deal’?

Salisbury Cathedral (Photo by Alexander London on Unsplash)
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‘Resilience’ is an interesting word. I am used to hearing it deployed in connection with the climate crisis, particularly as it affects low-lying communities vulnerable to flooding, the word implying a capacity to recover from a catastrophe that may seem intractable due to social, environmental, and economic trauma and stress the crisis may cause.

In the face of a major public health epidemic we think of resilience as part of a strategy, something that is improved by the provision of resources and their appropriate utilisation. Resilience is never excuse for doing too little too late. And today, this same ‘resilience’ – and the emergency planning by which it is underpinned – must be applied in response to the threat posed by a no-deal Brexit.

Even without Covid-19, we were being warned since even before the 2016 Referendum about the economic catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit. While supporters of leaving the EU were – and are – inclined to describe this as ‘scaremongering’, the evidence would suggest otherwise: the UK economy was heading for the rocks before Johnson even had time to ignore the warning signs of the impending pandemic. Now, we have a perfect storm: a human health disaster, and an otherwise avoidable economic, environmental, and social disaster around Brexit.

Beneath all the shouting, it is medical professionals, essential workers and care-workers who have carried the can for Covid-19. Now, we must ask: where does the buck stop in the event of a no-deal Brexit? Who is responsible for appropriate emergency planning if the ‘resilience’ of the logistics supply-chain proves inadequate?

Emergency planning rests with local authorities working with other agencies – councils are inevitably in the spotlight, not least when austerity has done so much damage, and has so limited their capacity to fulfil the roles we expect of them. Meanwhile, a sudden shift to a WTO-based trade relationship with the EU could blow a hole in our food, medical and pharmaceutical supply chains, while manufacturing will also be in a perilous state.

Let’s take Wiltshire as an example.

On 26 June 2020 the Swindon Advertiser and BBC Radio 4 reported Wiltshire County Council leader Philip Whitehead as having expressed serious concern that a £51m deficit posed a threat to getting through the financial year, and that the Conservative-led authority might have to issue a ‘Section 114’ notice; on issuance of this notice, the Council could curtail any expenditure beyond the provision of statutory services and safeguards for vulnerable people. The step would be comparable with a company filing for bankruptcy, with the very suggestion of issuing such a notice implying a looming crisis.

As we are all aware, the Covid-19 pandemic has stretched health and care services to their limits. How would the response to these pressures have been, if the UK had been trading on WTO terms with the European Union – in other words, if there had been a no-deal Brexit?

Throughout the pandemic there have been no restrictions on imports and exports to-and-from the EU. However, a no-deal Brexit would have created a wholly new set of circumstances: where might the UK’s four million diabetics have sourced their insulin – there being no domestic production of this medication?

The critical lack of Personal Protective Equipment in UK hospitals and care homes throughout much of the pandemic, has already been a – perhaps ‘the’ – major test of supply-chain resilience in a time of crisis: insufficient supply, equipment not produced fast enough, and some supplies found not fit-for-purpose, are what we have learned from the experience; the world of free-market, demand-led capitalism, failed to supply what was needed by our NHS and care system.

But a third factor is also of great significance. This is complacency – the arch enemy of resilience, if we are to survive the twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit.

Nebulous in cause but not in effect, complacency underlies the solutions to many of the problems of which are now so aware. By way of illustration, approaches have been made as recently as June 2020 to Wiltshire County Council by members of the Wiltshire Alliance for Europe, requesting details of what plans are in place in the event of a crisis triggered by a no-deal Brexit.

And what has been the Council’s response?

Under Freedom of Information, we have learned little more than nothing at all, officials having referred us to a selection of uninformative documents.

One approach to the Council solicited a response “from our corporate team”, from which it was learned that the Council works closely with its partners in the Local Resilience Forum on contingency planning to ensure they are prepared for the end of the Brexit transition period – including in the provision of “re-assurance to local communities”. The police were mentioned, while industry is apparently being consulted, and information will be shared.

Of detail, there is none, though reference was made to a 2018 document produced by the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government, wherein sums of money were mentioned, though without explanation as to how they might be spent.

Any perusal of Wiltshire’s preparedness for the possible emergency measures a no-deal Brexit may necessitate, leads to a further question: are we facing an emergency or not?

I am reminded of how Private Eye would in the past refer to ‘ongoing situations, with meaningful and viable scenarios at this moment in time.’ Such empty phrases – when applied to the real threat of a major crisis – warrants rather more than vague assertions in Council documents. But the answers we have managed to extract from individual MPs and one prominent councillor, have continued the practise of saying little by simply re-stating the governmental position.

It is now five months until the UK may leave the EU without a deal. A mere five months. It is only five months ago that the pandemic struck at the heart of the UK. It is a very short time indeed.

And what state of preparedness do we find ourselves in? Well, we find a cavalier attitude towards agriculture in our region (endangering food security), no concern for the impending investment crisis for industry (putting jobs on the line) and little about the security-of-supply for medical equipment and pharmaceutical supplies (simply outrageous). It is neither alarmist nor an exaggeration to raise these issues now: the Government’s atrocious performance throughout the pandemic has shattered confidence in its ability. We have no reason to believe it can perform any better in the months ahead of us.

Meanwhile, bland responses to our questions to officials in Wiltshire are a thin smokescreen when it comes to trying to conceal government inaction over a possible no-deal Brexit. If the issue was not so serious, one might almost feel sorry for those in Downing Street. But elected representatives, and the officials we pay with our taxes, owe us fuller explanations.

Hadrian Cook is the Chair of Salisbury for Europe