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UK’s Covid and Brexit Siege

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UK’s Covid and Brexit Siege

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The latest news from the UK on Covid and Brexit isn’t at encouraging. While some experts deemed the initial take of a Government panel that the new variant Covid looked to be markedly more contagious than established versions to be too speculative to warrant a Tier 4 lockdown of the southeast, others are calling for a national Tier 4 lockdown.

Unfortunately, the short version of “where we are now” is I suspect more definitive answers won’t be coming quickly, as in the next day or so. From the Financial Times:

“There is no evidence at the moment that the new variant causes disease which is any different from that caused by previous variants,” said Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.

There is provisional clinical evidence that B.1.1.7 is increasing the “viral load” — the amount of virus present in patients’ upper respiratory tract — which is also a feature of another variant called 501. V2 that has evolved independently in South Africa. This may make the new variants transmit more readily between people but it is not clear how the greater viral load would affect symptoms in those who are infected.

However, later reports speculate that that the South African variant is the same as the new UK one, which seems a bit at odds with Prof. Openshaw’s view. The big reason for concern in South Africa was their new strain was hitting young people with no comorbidities harder than the older variants. Presumably the “how many new strains” matter will be settled relatively quickly.

The new variant is now out and about all over Great Britain. From the Daily Mail (before you snort, DM does a good job on science stories):

The Mail understands Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has warned the Prime Minister the number of patients in hospital with coronavirus is on course to match the April peak by New Year’s Eve – and will continue increasing in January.

Downing Street yesterday tried to play down suggestions that a third national lockdown was imminent, but [Chief Scientific Adviser] Sir Patrick [Vallance] said the new strain, which is thought to spread up to 70 per cent more easily, was already present ‘around the country’.

He added: ‘It’s localised in some places but we know there are cases everywhere, so it’s not as though we can stop this getting into other places.’ Cases of the mutated strain of Covid have already been seen in Wales and Scotland and there are fears it could be spreading within Northern Ireland.

In the meantime, the UK is cordoned off. 40 countries have halted flights. United and Delta are allowing UK nationals to fly to the US, but only if they’ve had a negative Covid test.

Worse is the situation with goods. As readers may have seen, France has imposed a 48 hour hold on all entering shipments. Macron wants lorry-drivers to have a negative Covid test before they enter France from the UK.From the Guardian:

France expects to announce a limited reopening of its borders to UK traffic, as the British government said it was drawing up plans to test all lorry drivers taking goods across the Channel for Covid.

“A solution is being worked on and will be announced during the course of the day,” a French government source said on Tuesday. “The 48-hour suspension of traffic from the UK was “always an emergency measure, to allow us to find practical solutions and to consult with our European partners.”

The British home secretary, Priti Patel, said the government was talking to the French authorities about testing all hauliers leaving Britain, as she confirmed more than 1,500 lorries were stuck in Kent on Tuesday morning.

Needless to say, figuring out how to get drivers tested (and what tests are acceptable?) and how to generate documentation that can be verified at the border is a nightmare on top of the existing pile-up at Kent, which near term is getting worse:

The EU has scheduled an emergency meeting, and it seems likely EU-wide measures will supplant country-specific responses.

It would help if readers in Great Britain could give local reports, particularly regarding signs of panic buying.

Even though more eyes are on Covid than on Brexit, Brexit isn’t going swimmingly either. On the one hand, there’s now yet another drop dead date, December 23, although the authorities concede there won’t be any sort of proper ratification by year end. The EU would presumably rely on an emergency EU Council vote and treat the agreement as provisionally approved. Richard North harrumphed about the democratic deficit:

According to the blatts, the UK negotiators have come up with a compromise deal on fishing, the likes of which are too tedious and tentative to explore, which is hailed as potentially unlocking the sticking point in the talks…the Fanboy Gazette…tells us that MPs have been told to be ready to vote on possible “Brexit” trade deal on Wednesday of next week.

If the deal pans out, MPs and peers will, it appears, be expected to pass the implementation Bill in one day, ready for the government to publish the necessary Statutory Instruments, the day afterwards, just in time for the end of the transition period.

Ironically, whatever this is, it certainly ain’t democracy. With most MPs prone to learning difficulties at the best of times, very few of them are going to have the first idea of what they are voting for…..

That means – unless the EU itself is going to be party to an episode of collective delusion (which is quite possible) – that there is no chance whatsoever of the agreement being ratified before it goes into force, which means that we should be looking at provisional application, based on a Council decision.

The fun will really start if, in an attempt to get some sort of a deal in place, the parties fudge the details and the French (and possibly others) end up refusing to ratify, leaving the agreement to fall apart at a later date – assuming we ever get that far.

What we are not going to see, it appears, is any attempt by Johnson to seek an extension to the transition period, despite strong lobbying from diverse quarters, to stop the clock.

Most of the press, to the extent it reported on Brexit, did indeed have headlines touting progress on fishing. But if you read what seems to be the best account of the state of play, from the Financial Times, it’s not clear than much has changed:

Mr [Raoul] Ruparel [a former Europe adviser to ex-prime minister Theresa May who remains well connected in Whitehall] suggested in an article for Politico that a compromise on fisheries could involve the EU’s rights in UK waters — currently worth about €650m per annum — being cut by 35 per cent over a five-year transition period…

Several people close to the talks on the EU side said their understanding was that the current UK position on quotas and the transition was close to Mr Ruparel’s proposal.

British officials denied the UK had made a new offer along the lines suggested by Mr Ruparel, saying only that the two sides were “far apart” and that the negotiations were “brutally complicated”….

Several people close to the talks on the EU side said their understanding was that the current UK position on quotas and the transition was close to Mr Ruparel’s proposal.

British officials denied the UK had made a new offer along the lines suggested by Mr Ruparel, saying only that the two sides were “far apart” and that the negotiations were “brutally complicated”.

The pink paper continues to say that the reason the optics looked better was that Johnson said he’d had an “excellent conversation” with Macron, while saying that they didn’t discuss Brexit, but presumably did make progress on lorries.

So let’s step back. A former Theresa May advisor, who is “well-connected in Whitehall” (if that means what it means it the US, all it says is people take his calls) floats a trial balloon in Politico and suddenly this is treated as a UK position? Honestly, it’s even more likely that the EU is adeptly trolling the UK, using an op-ed with an interesting idea to make the UK look as if it’s the obstacle to achieving closure. After all, this is at least a proposal from someone Tory-aligned, so it can be depicted as having the aura of a sensible UK solution.

And as for the latest procedural fudge possibilities, Tony Connelly of RTE makes clear they are mighty messy:

First, Connelly confirms something I’d said seemed likely: that the EU would implement provisional measures, just as it has planned to in the event of a crash-out, if Jan 1 comes with no deal. I don’t know what the current versions are, since a lot of time has passed since then, giving the EU more time to refine them, but in version 1.0, they applied only to certain priority sectors, chosen for the EU’s convenience and need, and were then planned to last at most 9 months. With Covid, even if the EU sticks to the idea that they are time-limited, I’d expect the maximum duration to be longer.

Second, all of the fudges, as we said yesterday, presuppose some sort of deal and are designed to extend the approval runway. The weird business confidence-defending need for positive press messaging appears to be leading quite a few people with skin in the game to be underestimating the odds that the clock will roll around to Jan 1 with no agreement in principle.

Johnson has so lashed himself to the mast that it would be exceedingly difficult for him to push forward an extension-in-all-but-name. Plus the EU is so tired of the resources devoted to Brexit that they might allow the heavies like Macron to hold the line, on the assumption (as with Greece in 2015) that a few weeks of real pain will produce a big climbdown.

In any event, there’s not much time before something will wind up giving.

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