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Anthony Hilton: Hard Brexit strategies are being redeployed to cope with the virus

Some of Chancellor Rishi Sunak's measures were mooted in hard Brexit planning
Some of Chancellor Rishi Sunak's measures were mooted in hard Brexit planning / PA
31 March 2020

f you ever wondered how the Civil Service was coping with all these new measures for mitigating the coronavirus crisis, wonder no more. A lot of the initiatives were actually put in place when we were heading for a hard Brexit last October. They have simply been dusted down and used here. “Waste not want not” as they say.

Dominic Raab may have not known that Dover was a major port and Chris Grayling slipped up when he gave £14 million for a ferry route to Ramsgate even though the chosen company had no ships and no port contract. But they are politicians. The public sector professionals took another view.

The Civil Service decided that things could be tough if we left the European Union without a deal because it might well cause huge disruption. They thought a lot of businesses might fail; they thought the supply chain might be fractured; they worried about panic buying of food. So they made preparations to mitigate things.

Food supply is a case in point. More than half of it comes from the European Union and if this were blocked or impeded in some way how would Britain cope? Last summer and autumn Defra, the ministry which deals with food, held regular weekly meetings with the supermarkets and their trade bodies on specifically this point.

The industry was told to work on the supply chain to stockpile where appropriate, and to put in place procedures that sought to make sure that basic supplies could get through.

This is the result. There may have been a shortage of toilet rolls and dried pasta but in essence the supermarkets have stayed open and there is now no real shortage of most supplies in spite of a huge surge in demand. Think about that for a moment. It is an astonishing achievement.

Medicines had a similar treatment. Again, a great many of Britain’s health products come from the European Union. There were serious concerns about a hard Brexit’s impact on cancer treatments, for example, and other more prosaic drugs might also quickly become out of stock in chemists, regardless of what the voters’ prescriptions said. But again this has not happened. The supply chain has coped. Pharmacies have stayed open.

It is the same with other sectors — among others cross-Channel shipping and home shopping were put under the microscope. There are shortages of testing kits, face masks and protective clothing but this was not in the Brexit scenario. That perhaps makes the point. Virus-testing kits were mentioned a couple of years ago only to have those vetoed on cost grounds by the Department of Health. Brexit preparations were less bothered about the money.

Aid to companies was also on the agenda. It was thought that aircraft manufacturers like Airbus, and car firms like BMW, could have their production disrupted and have to lay off workers to protect their cashflow. Hence the suggestion that the Government lend companies the cash to keep their workers on the payroll.

It was announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, but it was not just something which came out of thin air. The groundwork for this and the aid for smaller companies was quietly talked about in the Civil Service six months ago.

There is mention of Government taking equity stakes in companies, the rail franchises for example. Even the Conservative party’s backbench MPs, much as they may dislike it, seem to accept that this may need to be done. They have certainly not rubbished it as they did Labour’s plans for something similar.

But one area where they have not got the answer is migration. It is reported that farmers fear for their crops as the season unfolds because the travel restrictions mean fruit-picking workers from the EU will no longer come. Romanians in particular used to visit for the season. But they did this too in other European countries. France and Germany now have a similar issue.

So coronavirus is making us think about stakeholders rather than shareholders, the Government propping up companies, nationalisation, the role of the public sector, the NHS, migration, the distribution of rewards, even a basic income for all. Who knows but we even might make a step towards working on climate change — in economic terms it would be a lot less damaging than this virus.

This is all a far cry from Trump’s America and his idea that the private sector can do it all. In contrast we are using some of the tools of Brexit to realise we are actually more European.