January 26, 2021

Coronavirus means that no one’s talking about Brexit any more

The UK performed a significant U-turn in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic this week. After days of savage criticism in the press over its laggardly testing strategy, Britain’s top health minister made a bold new pledge.

By the end of the month, Matt Hancock said, the country would aim to perform 100,000 tests a day, a tenfold increase from the end of March.
Get ready for wartime levels of national debt and tough choices ahead
Get ready for wartime levels of national debt and tough choices ahead
That would be even more than Germany’s current stellar performance of 50,000 tests a day. The announcement had the desired effect — the next day’s headlines were a lot more favorable and Hancock took the helm of the daily Downing Street briefing for the second day in a row on Friday.
But the question of why the UK fell so far behind on testing — even as the World Health Organization urged countries to “test, test, test” — refuses to go away. Hancock tried to explain away the criticism by attributing it to the UK’s historically small diagnostics industry. But critics believe that something else had been driving the UK’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the practice.
Since the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, the British government has made great efforts to remind the public that the UK’s future is as an independent nation in charge of its own destiny. Some observers believe this has muddied the government’s thinking, and driven it to take counterproductive steps — including a confused position on whether the UK should have taken part in an EU-wide effort to procure more ventilators.
The government claimed the reason it missed out on the program was merely due to a breakdown in communication, rather than an ideological opposition to EU-wide initiatives at a time when the UK was forging its own path.
Some analysts don’t buy that explanation. “Brexit has almost certainly influenced this determination to not look like we’re working with European countries. The response to questions about the German testing system has been extremely hostile,” says Anand Menon, professor of European and international politics at King’s College London.
“There would have been no downside to working with the Europeans on procurement, but the government has been floundering on why it didn’t. I suspect it partly had something to do with this political position that we don’t need the EU.”

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