Britain’s Covid blues

Hany Ghoraba
Tuesday 9 Nov 2021

The shoddy performance of successive British governments during the post-Brexit period has been overshadowed by a worse performance after the Covid-19 pandemic, writes Hany Ghoraba

Britain lived through better times over the past few decades than it did in previous years, but today the economic, political and social situation is not improving on any level in the country despite what has been reported to be a seven per cent rise in GDP in the British economy this year. 

The outlook of a potential seven per cent growth in GDP by the end of 2021 appears to be British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strongest line of defence against a barrage of attacks on his performance. But this line of defence appears much flimsier with the knowledge that the UK is coming back from the shrinking of its economy by 9.8 per cent in 2020. This is hardly the kind of “growth” that British citizens are looking forward to following the gloomy year of 2020. But Johnson is still using this potential growth as a sign of his aptitude in handling a critical situation in the country. 

Nevertheless, economic reports counter his arguments decisively, as the reality indicates that Britain is taking longer to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic than many other competing economies. It may take up to the first quarter of 2022 to reach pre-pandemic levels. Moreover, what was promised to be a step forward for the country’s economy in the form of Brexit, which theoretically should have increased the employment rates of British citizens, is no longer the case. The country’s attempts to distance itself from what was perceived as damaging EU policies are now backfiring.

The shoddy performance of successive British governments during the post-Brexit period has been overshadowed by a worse performance after the pandemic. The early days of the latter witnessed misjudgements by Johnson and a lack of proper precautions against the virus. These occurred despite Britain having the advantage of time to prepare for the onslaught of the virus at a time when it was spreading in continental Europe. This advantage, if properly capitalised upon, could have saved the country hundreds of thousands of lives, but alas the UK government did not implement the precautions at the proper time. 

The lockdown in the UK in 2020, which was lifted only to be followed by another, caused a major shake-up in the UK’s domestic economy and massive layoffs and bankruptcies, especially among smaller businesses and commercial outlets. The country’s hospitality and tourism sector took the strongest hit, as most of these businesses have been operating at much lower capacity and have only been keeping open in order to pay the bills. 

Britain is now facing a major shipping and delivery issue, and there is a dire need for 100,000 lorry drivers, most of whom left the country following Brexit. The government has managed to procure around 10,000 non-British truck drivers and has granted them temporary visas. The problem has stemmed from the fact that the majority of the previous drivers carried non-British citizenship, and after Brexit they were no longer permitted to work in the UK. 

This problem remains a major issue as the Christmas season approaches, and there are serious concerns over expected shortages of goods in supermarkets. There will be empty shelves if the situation persists. Yet, this is not just a matter of the transportation of goods across the UK, but also extends to the transportation of humans. This week, the UK’s Licensed Private Car Hire Association (LPCHA) estimated that the country’s taxi and private-hire industry is short of 160,000 drivers out of a previously 300,000-strong workforce. These taxi, Uber and limousine drivers quit their jobs during the pandemic, as the lockdowns drove down demand for their services. The problem is now impacting all facets of life in the UK, from going to work and shopping to recreation, as people going to hotels, bars and restaurants cannot expect to get a guaranteed ride home after visiting these places. 

The UK daily the Financial Times this week reported disappointing British exports following Brexit, and these stand out all the more as the world’s leading economies are witnessing a significant recovery from the dip that followed the coronavirus pandemic. There seems to be a significant problem in attracting foreign customers for British goods. The report quoted Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics at King’s College London, who described the state of British exports as poor in comparison to peer countries that have been witnessing a recovery to near pre-pandemic levels.

Britain is also engaged in a feud with France, which ended with the latter withdrawing its ambassador in London as a sign of deteriorating relations. The feud was about fishing rights in the English Channel, and it led to further arguments between two nations already at odds over Brexit and the AUKUS pact with Australia that ostracised France and denied it a $90 billion submarine deal. The French went as far as to seize a British ship before releasing it last week.

While the tone of the feud has been getting better, an assortment of issues must be resolved before it will go away. Earlier, France vowed to impose sanctions on Britain over the fishing feud, and the UK vowed to retaliate if the French went ahead with their threats. 

Chairman of the British fiscal watchdog the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) Richard Hughes also warned of decreasing GDP as a result of Brexit at around four per cent and added this to two per cent already lost as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

This month alone, 9.25 million British citizens have contracted the coronavirus, and there have been 147,000 who have tragically died since last year from this infernal disease. Infections averaged 37,526 per day during the first week of November in the UK, an enormous number when over 50 million of 67.2 million British citizens have received at least one shot of the vaccine. 

Britain has not witnessed harder times since World War II, and unfortunately Johnson’s plans for the post-Brexit period and for fighting the Covid-19 pandemic are not as impressive as he seems to believe. His attitude throughout the crisis and his conflicting decisions have exacerbated the length of the painful post-Brexit period and the coronavirus pandemic. 

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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