The track-and-trace system in the United Kingdom is underwhelming, considering it comes with a price tag worth £10 billion (Dh48.7 billion). For that type of investment, you’d hope that it would be able to quickly identify those exposed to coronavirus with great efficiency — but mostly that has not been the case.
The original app was launched in May, had to be withdrawn within weeks, and critics of the system say that a more effective model would have made use of local government resources to help turn back the pandemic by requiring those exposed to the coronavirus to isolate for 14 days. For critics of the system with a political axe to grind, the £7,000 daily fee charged by some consultants to develop the system is an easy target, considering that some furloughed workers are expected to live on just £342 per week on universal credit payments.
The track and trace system worked all too well for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. His phone pinged an red alarm last weekend that he had been in prolonged close contact with an infected person — a Conservative MP who visited 10 Downing Street with colleagues, They were trying to reset the relationship between backbenchers and party leader with the sudden and bitter departure of Johnson’s top aide, Dominic Cummings, a man whose influence was not much liked.
For days, the British media had been consumed by the political backbiting and antics of Johnson’s aides — which merely added to a general sense among many Britons that their economic well-being, health and safety during Lockdown 2.0 seemed irrelevant to those at the top of the political heap.
For this and next week, and for the second time in this age of pandemic, coronavirus has come to Johnson. Timing is everything in politics. The timing now for this self-isolation, couldn’t be worse. It is lonely at the top — even more so when you’re in isolation, in solitude.
The infighting between those close to Johnson who wanted him to take a more hands-on approach in dealing with his Conservative MPs, and those in the Cummings camp who were more radical, disrespectful, contemptuous of the niceties of office and parliament — illegally proroguing the House of Commons in September 2019 was their doing — was akin to a bag of cats duking it out over a rat. With Cummings finally gone, Johnson had an opportunity to show he was a man fully in control. Track-and-trace put paid to that notion.
Just 40 days to go
Now, with roughly 40 days left before the transition period ends and the UK is out of the EU once and for all come 11pm London time on December 31, there is no deal in place on what the future relationship between Britain and the bloc will look like.
We are already more than a month past the mid-October deadline that Johnson said would be needed to have a deal. Brussels had previously said too that it wanted the talks wrapped up by the start of November. Now, an EU summit over Zoom on Thursday was a perfect opportunity to sign off on any potential deal: The EU 27 leaders will instead be focusing on putting measures in place to rebuild their collective economy and plan for the future.
There is a chance that there might be a special summit come December 10 on any Brexit deal — but that leaves very little time for any deal to be passed by the European Parliament and the respective member states before that end-of-year cliff edge.
And yes, cliff edge it is — given that failure to reach a deal will have an immediate impact on UK consumers, manufacturers, businesses, importers and exporters. After all that they have been through with coronavirus and its worst economic hit in more than three centuries of record keeping, come January 1 tariffs of an average of 8 per cent will be levied on most imported goods on UK shelves. Many expect there to be shortages on foodstuffs, toilet paper and imported medicines while long queues of trucks clog motorways heading to Channel ports and, as one report earlier this week noted, the county of Kent is turned into one giant outside toilet by cross-legged lorry drivers.
With the clock winding down very fast indeed, with Johnson in isolation, with the UK in lockdown and with Downing Street recovering from the feline factiousness, there are still three major impediments that need to be overcome for the free trade deal to be reached: Level-playing field provisions; governance; and fisheries.
A level-playing field
Level-playing field provisions are needed to ensure that the EU and UK generally agree on the same set of rules and standards on things like workers’ rights, the environment and rules on state aid. The last thing the EU wants is an offshore British economy working away where environmental rules are dialled back, that unsafe or banned materials might be used, or that London might be able to subsidise one particular manufacturers or industrial sector to give it an unfair advantage over comparative European companies.
Part and parcel of any free trade agreement is the issue of governance. If either side is accused of breaking the agreed rules, how is the dispute resolved and who decides — and what penalties might be imposed. For Brexiteers, the notion of future disputes being arbitrated at the European Court of Justice is anathema.
And fisheries. Although fishing has small economic value, it is a touchstone issue for the UK. The waters around the British Isles are rich in species treasured by Dutch, French and Spanish trawlers. How many EU trawlers will the UK allow its waters, how many of each species can they catch, and how will stocks and protected marine breeding areas be safeguarded for the future?
With so much on his plate, maybe a few weeks isolation will indeed help Johnson to focus on the mountain of work that needs to be done. And quickly.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.