Covid-19 means Brexit must be delayed

“It is difficult to understand why this government doggedly refuses to do the plainly common sense thing and seek an extension”. With high-profile events falling like dominoes to the Covid-19 outbreak, including COP26 climate talks, Green Party Deputy Leader Amelia Womack calls on the government to ask for an extension to the Brexit deadline to focus fully on dealing with the pandemic.

Amelia Womack
Amelia Womack
Amelia Womack

This week it was finally confirmed that the COP26 UN climate talks due to take place in Glasgow at the end of the year would be postponed owing to the Covid-19 outbreak. It joins a host of fixtures in the calendar which have fallen to the pandemic, from Glastonbury to Wimbledon. 

It is, of course, the right thing to do. There is no prospect of putting adequate preparation in place for COP26 while we deal with a global pandemic, and we need to get this right, now more than ever. However, it does raise the salience of a question the government still refuses to answer: why won’t we ask for a Brexit deadline extension on the same basis?

For all the reasons we have rightfully postponed COP26, we should ask to postpone the Brexit deadline. Just like COP26, securing a good trade deal will take considerable preparation, expertise and dedication – three things we have little capacity for at the moment. Just like COP26, it is absolutely critical to the future prosperity of this country that we get this right. And it is also plain that the writing is on the wall: talks have already been cancelled, and there is no longer any realistic timetable in which a deal can be secured.

With ‘no deal’ still looming over the end of this transition period, the stakes have never been higher. This crisis has shown us how fragile our just-in-time supply chains are, and how poorly prepared our underfunded public sector is to respond to emergencies. With a second wave of the pandemic possibly arriving in the winter, the last thing we need is a secondary shock of a no-deal Brexit at exactly the same time.

It is difficult to understand why this government doggedly refuses to do the plainly common sense thing and seek an extension. Yes, we are currently bound to this timetable by law, but Parliament would clearly support new legislation to ask the EU for an extension – and we can be fairly sure that the EU would accept. The only explanation can be that they are clinging onto an ideology which won them a general election, but has turned into sand through their fingers during a global pandemic: Getting Brexit Done. In November, this slogan was fairy dust. Now it looks more like magic beans.

For the likes of Johnson and Cummings, adhering to the one promise they made to the country must feel like the only solid thing they can grasp onto as a world order collapses around them. While they still reside in the distant past of December 2019, the public lives in the real world and has left them behind on this – with two thirds of us in favour of an extension.

Their narrow ideology has already cost this country dearly, and we have paid with lives. Last week, we discovered that the UK Government missed an opportunity to participate in a EU-wide procurement scheme for ventilators, because they said there was a communications mix up. This week we learned that British officials were actually in those procurement meetings, so they were lying. 

They are so desperate to project the image of a hard break from the European Union and all it represents, that they won’t even cooperate to save the lives of their own citizens, nor will they insulate us from a further shock at the end of the transition period. By shunning the offer of help from the EU and going it alone, the Conservatives have offered 30 ventilators to the country when they promised 30,000. Not to put too fine a point on it – people will die because of this.

With record numbers signing onto the paltry and creaking Universal Credit system – ten times the usual influx since the start of social distancing – and a literally unprecedented 15 per cent economic slump predicted in the months ahead, who would still dare call it Project Fear to say that a no-deal Brexit literally threatens the lives of the most vulnerable?

It has never been more dangerous to play to the gallery on nativism. Aside from climate change itself, it's hard to think of a more obvious reason for global cooperation than Covid-19, and the last thing we need is a government ideologically opposed to international institutions that can help facilitate this in a rapidly fragmenting world. 

Say what you want about the response to the 2008 financial crash, but our then Prime Minister Gordon Brown knew the importance of coordinating a truly internationalist response. Compare that to today, with countries pursuing directly contradictory suppression strategies, while fighting in a dog pile over a dwindling global supply of protective equipment and testing kits. It doesn’t inspire confidence about our ability to collectively navigate the warming world ahead of us.

All of this goes to show how essential it is that we reschedule COP26, and reapply ourselves to the challenge of climate change with renewed vigour and purpose. It also shows how poorly prepared we are to withstand a further shock of a no-deal Brexit at the end of the year. It’s time to put ideology aside, it’s time to put that infamous slogan to bed, and it’s time to ask for an extension to the Brexit transition period.