The government did not quite achieve the Brexit breakthrough it was seeking on Friday, when there was hope that a fast-tracked trade agreement with Japan might be reached. But it seems likely that a deal, essentially replicating one signed by the EU and Japan last year, will be done by the end of the month. Some kind of morale booster for Britain’s battered and bruised businesses would certainly be welcome.
As the clock runs down to the end of the transition period on 31 December, ministers are no longer bothering to offer the false hope of a relatively frictionless trade agreement with the EU. Even a Canada-style free trade deal will mean a vast infrastructure of compliance and checks: permits for lorry drivers to enter Kent, huge customs clearance centres and tracking apps are all in the mix. The government estimates that, from 2021, there will be over 400m extra customs checks a year on goods going to and from the EU.
As the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has acknowledged, re-litigating Brexit is a pointless exercise. But given the immediate context, the folly of not extending the transition period becomes more apparent with each passing week. The country is heading deep into recession and a possible winter resurgence of Covid-19. The explosion of new bureaucracy and red tape will compound the misery for businesses and add to their costs. From the pharmaceutical industry to the freight trade, alarm bells are now ringing loudly in companies being tested beyond their limits. The government’s continuing insouciance is breathtaking.
Last week, the Department of Health airily advised medical suppliers to stockpile six weeks’ worth of drugs to cope with possible disruption at the end of the transition period. The effects of the pandemic on existing stocks and global supply chains make this a near-impossible task. The imposition of new customs and border controls will further destabilise supply chains. About 70% of prescription medicines in the UK come to Britain via the EU. The December departure date coincides with what is generally the busiest time of year for the pharmaceutical industry, even in a normal year. This year, the spectre of a flu outbreak combined with a Covid-19 surge looms. The deputy chair of the British Medical Association has described the situation as “incredibly concerning”.
The government’s new border operating plans, unveiled last month by Michael Gove, were criticised by freight operators for lacking detail and relying on as-yet untested technology. Much will depend on the successful functioning of “track and trace” style technology to obviate the need for long queues and checks at borders. The “smart freight” system is not expected to be ready for testing before November, ahead of a January launch. The failure of the contact-tracing app tested on the Isle of Wight does not inspire confidence.
The prospect of fines for drivers who are not “border-ready” when entering Kent suggests that ministers will not hesitate to blame businesses when things start to go wrong. Given the pressures that employers and employees alike have been under since March, this would be wholly unfair.
As one senior figure in the pharmaceutical industry put it recently, there is a desperate need for “a bit of breathing space” as companies face an unprecedented set of variables and unknowns. But even at a time of national crisis, the theological demands of Brexit continue to trump all practical considerations. It is an irresponsible and reckless way to govern a country.