One has to wonder if all the bad karma that the UK incurred in its imperial days has finally come home to roost with a vengeance. The UK has found that the Brexit cliff edge arrived early thanks to a Covid cordon imposed by its trade partners, and as we’ll discuss soon, the real Brexit cliff is bearing down on the UK.
But for the Brexit part, one doesn’t have to look that far back in history to find causes. Even though Thatcher did pump for the UK joining the EEC, her initial enthusiasm turned to distaste. That led among other things to the UK having a half-in, half out attitude, regularly looking for ways to play the spoiler to its advantage. That spectacularly backfired when the UK pushed hard for Eastern European countries to join the block, anticipated that they would become allies in opposing the Germany-France axis. The UK estimated that the entry of Poland would result in first year emigration of Poles to the UK of 50,000. It turned out to be 500,000, putting pressure not just on wages but on low-end housing in a country already at the very low end for residential square footage per capita among advanced economies.
And that’s before getting to the great damage Thatcherism did to the UK, and how UK membership in the EU helped accelerate neoliberalism taking hold on the Continent. As readers know too well, the Tories would regularly scapegoat the EU for austerity the UK imposed all on its own.
But to the Covid lockdown imposed on the UK by its trade partners. Unless you took an Internet break over the weekend, you have probably heard that there are two new Covid mutations that have health authorities worried, one in the UK and one in South Africa. The one in South Africa may wind up being even more dangerous since it appears to increase the severity of infections and more heavily afflict the young than early strains.
But the UK mutation sounds bad enough. It appears be markedly more contagious, even though there seems to be no evidence (so far) that resulting infections are more serious than under previously-circulating strains of Covid.
This mutation is taking hold just after the UK managed to engineer an internal mass migration by announcing a Tier 4 lockdown of the London in advance, inducing anyone who had anywhere else to go to decamp. As usual, the Daily Mail last Friday (hat tip Kevin W) tells the story: Escape from the capital! Huge queues as desperate families flee London ahead of Tier 4 misery – as PM’s critics mockingly congratulate him for causing the city’s ‘first evacuation since 1939.‘
And more contagion fun from the Daily Mail account:
An announcement warned passengers that it would not be possible to maintain social distancing on the train.
So the Government scored a Covid own goal with its handling of the lockdowns even before the mutation bad news was out, on Saturday. From the BBC:
Top health officials said that there was no evidence the new variant was more deadly, or would react differently to vaccines, but it was proving to be up to 70% more transmissible.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new strain “was out of control. We have got to get it under control”, admitting that this was “an incredibly difficult end to frankly an awful year”.
The Biologist sent an e-mail with more details, starting with:
After Saturday’s presser (with PM announcing new Tier 4 lockdown) I was bit skeptical given lack of data and given previous hypes of new mutants with 0 evidence of shifts in transmissibility. However these data have swayed me to ‘better safe than sorry’. It’s minutes from UK’s ‘New and Emerging Respiratory Virus.”
We’ve embedded the short, readable, and not at all cheery document at the end of the pos, which describes the increase contagiousness of the new variant and how it appears to have a “selective advantage” over other strains. The Biologist highlighted:
No evidence for increased disease severity
Vaccine effectiveness effects unknown
4 ‘probable’ reinfections (big if true)
This is part of a very good thread for those who are interested in the mechanics of the mutations:
2. Both lineages have acquired a combination of mutations and deletions not found together in the same genetic background before. In conjunction, some mutations / deletions make the lineage intrinsically more transmissible, for example by increasing viral load in the host.
— Prof Francois Balloux (@BallouxFrancois) December 20, 2020
Some experts are less alarmed. As the Biologist explained,
Alternative explanation is that this variant happened to be highly prevalent in areas undergoing rapid spread, basically surfing a local (super) spreading. This demographic (vs. selective explanation above) was my initial thought, and some scientists feel that’s still best explanation, see:
Vaccines fine for now: New strain not really a strain, just a lineage. RNA viruses mutate it’s what they do. Even evidence that it’s more transmissible may be right but not convincing. Our great colleagues @MethodistHosp in @TXMedCenter made a different but similar observation https://t.co/46KyjiAyNw
— Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD (@PeterHotez) December 21, 2020
Since this is a rapidly evolving situation (pun not intended), we could know a lot more as soon as during the day US time.
But in the meantime, having seen the high cost of reacting to Covid threats too slowly, the UK’s trade and travel partners are taking no chances. From Politico’s morning European newsletter:
BRITAIN CUT OFF: At least 15 countries have announced restrictions on travelers from the U.K. over concerns about a new, super-infectious strain of the coronavirus that is spreading fast in southern England. Both the Eurotunnel and Eurostar have suspended services, while the Port of Dover said it would be closed to “all accompanied traffic leaving the U.K. until further notice.” According to Bild, an EU-wide flight ban could be imposed until January 6. The Times declares “Europe shuts its door on on Britain,” while the Mirror dubs the U.K. the “Sick man of Europe” over “mutant virus fears.”
Chaos at the border: The travel restrictions appear to have caught the U.K. off guard. “Following the French Government’s announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48hrs, we’re asking the public & particularly hauliers not to travel to Kent ports or other routes to France,” Britain’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tweeted. “We expect significant disruption in the area,” he continued, adding his department was “urgently working” to implement contingency measures to minimize disruption….
Don’t hamster! Industry body Logistics UK urged British shoppers not to hoard supplies and said it was working with the government to maintain stocks of fresh produce: “Shoppers should not panic buy — retailers will be making every effort to ensure there is stock within the system, including fresh produce, and it is important that we remember that inbound traffic still has access to the U.K.”
What’s next: The German presidency of the Council of the EU called an urgent crisis response meeting today at 11 a.m. The U.K. government will also hold a crisis meeting today.
A move by Paris to impose a 48-hour block on people and truck-borne freight coming into France from Britain from Monday prompted the closure of transport services across the English Channel, notably between Dover and Calais.
It raised the prospect of crippling delays on the UK’s main freight link with the EU, which usually handles up to 10,000 trucks a day…
French officials said the 48-hour suspension will allow time for the 27 EU member states to co-ordinate their response. They envisage a system allowing traffic from the UK, with pre-departure Covid-19 tests, from December 22.
The road approaches in England and France to the main freight routes across the English Channel had already been congested for two weeks, largely because of stockpiling by UK companies ahead of the imposition of customs controls between Britain and the EU on January 1.
The French move caused alarm in UK industry. Although freight was still allowed into England from France, hauliers were questioning whether to make the journey if lorries could not return.
Having gotten an antigen test, they take about 20 minutes to process. That doesn’t allow for the time to get to a test location and any queuing. Plus they are subject to false positives. In other words, any Covid testing and/or test verification is only going to make the border backups worse.
However, that EU “taking no chances” part might be a bit of an exaggeration:
Foreign residents on the last flight into Berlin from London have been separated from the German citizens and will spend the night in the airport until the test center opens at 6am.
Germans allowed through without a test pic.twitter.com/clDvuFhqYY
— Patrick Kingsley (@PatrickKingsley) December 20, 2020
In any event, the virus news has trumped Brexit news and probably planning too. Because the Brexit deadline “wolf” has been cried one too many times, the press is under-reacting to the failure to come to an agreement over the weekend. This is an event horizon. It even resembles the way the real-life version is supposed to work, that there’s no obvious change when an object gets irrevocably sucked into the gravitational field of a black hole. The two sides are bizarrely still talking about a deal that now can’t get done in time as opposed to changing focus to what happens on January 1 and what can be done to ameliorate the damage.
In fairness, the EU now looks to be engaging in an empty exercise simply to preserve its claim that it didn’t leave the negotiating table. But Barnier would need a new mandate to do anything different, or at least some interim guidance from the Commission.
Nevertheless, the talks appear to be terminal even though both sides are still meeting. The headlines in the UK press are also making it sound as if fish, which to Brexiteers means EU intransigence, are scuppering the deal, when the critically important “level playing field” is still unresolved. The Financial Times is playing the scapegoating game too. Its Brexit update is headlined Brexit talks remain blocked over fishing rights. Yet this is paragraph two:
British officials insisted the EU offer on fisheries and the fair competition level playing field remained “unacceptable” and accused member states — an apparent reference to France — of not showing enough “flexibility” to get a deal over the line.
Reuters also flagged fish and level playing field as the two obstacles to closing a deal. Admittedly, Macron is not helping by piping up to demand continued access to UK fishing grounds.
Tony Connelly of RTE, admittedly a bit far into his piece, has EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness saying in a not-coded manner that no deal text Monday means the EU Parliament can’t ratify by January 1:
Earlier, EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness said the situation regarding post-Brexit trade deal talks is serious now, and that there needs to be a broader understanding from the UK side of what they are getting, as opposed to what they must concede….
The European Parliament needs the text of trade deal today in order to ratify a deal by 1 January, and while talks remain ongoing, no agreement has yet been reached on the issue of fisheries.
Ms McGuinness said it was “not accurate” to say that fisheries was the last issue blocking a trade deal, but was getting the most attention, adding that while progress has been made on other issues such as governance and level playing field, they were still not fully resolved.
The Guardian was more pointed, in UK faces Brexit limbo after talks deadline missed:
The failure to meet the European parliament’s deadline means that ministers on the EU council representing the bloc’s capitals may need to “provisionally apply” a deal on 1 January to avoid a no-deal exit until parliament votes later in the month.
If the talks go much deeper into December, however, there may not be time for the EU capitals to translate and scrutinise the agreed text, leaving the UK to exit the transition period without new trade and security arrangements with Brussels.
Contingency measures would have to be agreed to bridge the gap before a deal could come into force, but such a scenario raises the danger of ports and security services being left in legal limbo.
This scenario looks optimistic in light of the very next paragraph:
Bernd Lange, the German chair of the parliament’s trade committee, the key body in the chamber’s ratification process, tweeted: “The consequence of no deal tonight is obvious: the [European parliament] does not know the consolidated text, is not in a position to scrutinise before the end of the transition period. So make preparations now for a no-deal period and agree emergency measures with UK.”
And if you are hoping for a Monday save, if you want a happy ending, watch a Disney movie. Earlier in his account, Connelly noted:
A Government source acknowledged the 11th-hour negotiations had taken a turn for the worse.
At least someone in the UK understands what is up, even though an extension is na ga happen1:
It’s now imperative that PM seeks an agreement to extend the Brexit transition period. The new Covid strain – & the various implications of it – means we face a profoundly serious situation, & it demands our 100% attention. It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 20, 2020
Not that there appears to be anywhere enough of the latter in place aside from building the giant lorry park in Kent (in fairness, France appears to have some investments in infrastructure and systems for its major UK interface points). For instance, during Theresa May’s premiership, when it looked conceivable that the UK could crash out 24 months after pulling the Brexit trigger, the EU set forth a list of priority sectors. It would keep some limited transition measures in place for a maximum of nine months. These were selected to reduce damage to the EU, not out of any consideration for the UK.
The EU’s posture has been that it wasn’t announcing contingency plans out of concern that it would be depicted as an effort to influence the negotiations. Perhaps EU mandarins have been planning in secret, but it’s hard to do that given the need of the Commission to coordinate with member nations, combined with Brussels being a leaky ship. Or perhaps Brussels has been advising and working with countries that are particularly exposed to Brexit fallout, and even quietly passing best practice plans around (“Denmark is doing XYZ…”).
Needless to say, with the UK in a cordon sanitaire, last minute Brexit supply scrambling is now off, plus EU officials will be preoccupied with trying to get their hands around the Covid mutation data and dealing with the immediate fallout from the travel restrictions.
1 EU officials have repeatedly ruled it out as no longer possible, as in there does not seem to be enough (any) support for it. It would also amount to a treaty amendment. Those take time to approve and thus at this late date could not solve the Jan. 1 cliff problem. Plus Johnson would have to ask. He’s not just painted himself into a corner on that issue, he’s also nailed his shoes to the floor.00 new SARS-2