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Brexit Hindered Government During Pandemic, Inquiry Finds

01 November, 2023


An inquiry into the government’s measures for Covid 19 has found that attention to Brexit had affected Britain's handling of the pandemic.


Helen Macnamara, deputy cabinet secretary, claimed that Boris Johnson’s “monomaniacal focus” was on Britain leaving the European Union.


“I do know that the kind of monomaniacal focus of him and his political team for reasons which I’m sure they would happily give on just focusing on EU exit from July 2019 and then getting to the election meant that they – at least in the way it was communicated to us – is that everything else could wait, everything else could wait till after this question was settled.”


“And then there was going to come a very large amount of change and we were just not sure what that change was ever going to be,” Macnamara said, speaking to the Covid 19 inquiry panel on November 01.


Macnamara’s speech partly supports claims made by Dominic Cummings, the chief advisor to former prime minister Boris Johnson. In a written statement from the Covid 19 Public-Inquiry on October 11 2023, Cummings blamed the mishandling of Covid and the first lock-down on the previous governments’ inability to find a deal for Brexit between 2016- 2019.


“The first lockdown was not intrinsically necessary. It became necessary to stop NHS collapse because of the actual historical circumstances including a large fraction of Insiders refusing to accept the referendum result and driving the country into a constitutional and political crisis that consumed a vast amount of the focus of the core of the state 2016-19 such that critical capabilities and planning were ignored, not taken seriously by senior people and so on.”


“If we had had a government that implemented the referendum decision and focused on a government's core job like preparing for large disasters and changed procurement law and so on, then no lockdowns would have been necessary.”


“We could have met the crisis with rapid action at the borders and rapid build up of testing capacity, rapid vaccine building and so on. Mass rapid tests deployed at scale (tens of millions per week) could have averted any need for lockdown to stop NHS collapse in spring 2020 as well as autumn 2020.”


Lord Frost, former Brexit negotiator, criticised the claim that Boris Johnson prioritised Brexit over other matters in the lead up to the Covid-19 pandemic: “No one outside Wuhan had heard of Covid until January 2020. It is therefore simply a chronological impossibility that Brexit work in 2019 could have distracted from an unforeseeable crisis in 2020.” [Independent]


However, in a statement posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, Frost said that Johnson’s cabinet had solely focused on Brexit and blamed the lack of deal in the wake of the pandemic on the previous government’s administration, “


“We might not have had to if the previous government, ministers *and* officials, had not bungled the negotiation so badly so that the referendum result could not be delivered.”


 “We were in the biggest constitutional crisis for a hundred years. That obviously had to be the Government's overwhelming priority.”


“‘No deal’ Brexit planning certainly revealed many of the systemic weaknesses that became even more obvious during the pandemic, and even enabled us to build plans that turned out to be useful (eg on drugs supply), but it certainly did not cause them.”


Lord Bethell, who was made health minister in March 2020, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Johnson failed to respond to concerns surrounding 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 added: “It was put to us there were other priorities including Brexit. I personally found that completely unexplainable and baffling”.

Bethell continued to say that 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”. 

According to The Guardian, Simon Case, who was Downing Street’s permanent secretary to Boris Johnson from May to September 2020, said that the former prime minister “changes strategic direction every day (Monday we were all about fear of virus returning as per Europe, March etc – today we’re in ‘let it rip’ mode cos [sic] the UK is pathetic, needs a cold shower etc.)”

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