Brexit black hole sucked government time and resources away from Covid and so many other major issues

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Lord Bethell, a former health minister, said Boris Johnson prioritised Brexit over Covid, which he found “completely unexplainable and baffling”.

In this week’s evidence at the Covid Inquiry, Helen MacNamara - one of the UK’s most senior civil servants - described how Boris Johnson’s government had a “mono-maniacal” focus on Brexit.

“The way it was communicated to us, everything else could wait,” MacNamara said - an attitude which affected both preparations and the early part of the pandemic. While Lord Bethell, a health minister at time, said Brexit was prioritised over Covid, which he found “completely unexplainable and baffling”.

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This is yet another example of how, for years since the referendum, Brexit has sucked in all of the government’s focus and resources to the detriment of many other important issues. Even before the world heard of Covid, it was already having an impact.

Emma Reed, the Department of Health official in charge of planning for emergencies, previously told the Inquiry that plans for a no deal Brexit sometimes took precedence over pandemic preparedness. She said the Cabinet Office asked her which work she could "prioritise or deprioritise in order to prepare".

Boris Johnson focused on Brexit over Covid. Credit: Getty/Adobe/Kim MoggBoris Johnson focused on Brexit over Covid. Credit: Getty/Adobe/Kim Mogg
Boris Johnson focused on Brexit over Covid. Credit: Getty/Adobe/Kim Mogg | Getty/Adobe/Kim Mogg

Nicola Sturgeon backed this up. The former Scottish Prime Minister said it was “deeply regrettable” that the threat of a “no deal Brexit” forced the government to “divert resources” away from emergency planning for potential pandemics. 

This was all part of something called Operation Yellowhammer - the government’s plan in case of a disastrous no-deal Brexit, which could have caused issues to food and medicine supplies, financial transactions and would have affected the movement of people. 

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While some people such as Matt Hancock and Helen MacNamara say the preparations helped the UK during Covid, there’s no doubt it stole attention in the lead-up and at the start of the pandemic. 

Giving evidence this week, former director of communications Lee Cain explained how in January and February 2020 tackling coronavirus was a “low priority” for the government. He said it “was only one of many issues discussed inside Downing Street”, and behind Brexit, 5G, HS2, a Cabinet reshuffle and more.

And it appears this attitude became entrenched in the Prime Minister. MacNamara said her “injections of caution” about the uncertainty of the situation “did not register with Johnson” and were met with dismissiveness. 

“In those early Cabinet meetings in particular Johnson was very confident that the UK would sail through and we should all be careful of over-correcting in advance of something that was unlikely to have a huge impact and for which – in any case – we were well prepared," she said. She added that he still had a "breezy confidence" in March 2020, which jarred with her.

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Lord Bethell said Johnson would do “everything he could” to avoid focusing on the pandemic. “I was aware that during the early days of the pandemic, it was extremely difficult to get any response from Downing Street, and we could see this train coming down the tracks at us,” he told the Today Programme.

In March “it was put to us there were other priorities including Brexit” Lord Bethell said. “I personally found that completely unexplainable and baffling … I know [Johnson] found the prospect of a pandemic personally very difficult to focus on, it was bad news of a kind he doesn’t like to respond to, and he did everything he could to try to avoid the subject.”

Before the magnitude of Covid eventually dawned on Johnson, Brexit was still acting like a black hole - swallowing all the attention of the government. MacNamara said it had left government “structures … bent out of shape”. And it has been like that for years - countless other priorities missed or problems put on hold.

Despite warnings for years, the government is only now getting to grips with the crumbling concrete crisis in schools, farmers are still being undercut by their EU counterparts and overcrowding in the prison service is only getting worse. 

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