Brexit Bulletin: Painful Politics
What’s Happening? Is Brexit more important to the British government than the lives of critically ill patients and the country’s economic future?
The U.K. missed out on a European Union-wide effort to purchase medical supplies because of a “political decision,” the most senior official in the Foreign Office said this week. Health Secretary Matt Hancock denied the claim, saying he asked to join the program when it was brought to him; Simon McDonald later issued a painful retraction. For good measure, the EU said the U.K. had been given “ample opportunity” to join if it wanted.
Is this all because of Brexit? When the U.K.’s decision not to take part in the EU’s procurement programs first came to light, Downing Street said it was because Britain isn’t a member of the EU anymore. Then No. 10 claimed it didn’t receive the invitation—but it later emerged the EU had issued four of them. Britain is now officially on board. Yet the EU program hasn’t actually delivered any equipment yet—a fact lost amid the ever-changing explanations for why the U.K. didn’t take part.
Downing Street will be hugely sensitive to the suggestion that it is putting ideology above patients’ lives at a time when coronavirus tests, live-saving ventilators and protective equipment for doctors and nurses are already in short supply.
This Brexit-tinged fight has diverted attention away from the resumption of trade talks between Britain and the EU after the chief negotiators were forced into self-isolation. Both sides are expected to say more on Friday about how the negotiations have progressed. Don’t expect it to be far.
Currency traders are now beginning to worry the final divorce terms will be messy, adding to pressure on an economy that’s already facing unprecedented damage from the pandemic. And a group of former senior civil servants this week called on the U.K. government to extend the transition period beyond the year-end. So far, Britain has committed to press on without delay. Yet business appears to assume that a delay is a given. They are at risk of getting an unpleasant shock.
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