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Is it possible to manage the collision of Covid-19 and Brexit?

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Navigating a worldwide pandemic was never going to be easy, especially in the midst of a global economic depression. Pair that with the UK’s departure from the EU, and it’s safe to say that it’s been a tumultuous ride. Some have gone as far as to say that Covid-19 ‘poisoned’ the government’s response to Brexit, with the economy taking priority over public health.

The UK’s economic position has influenced the government’s approach to Covid-19, as by December the nation’s unemployment rate is expected to rise to its highest level since 1984. At the same time, the transition period after Brexit will come to an abrupt end – leaving little time to tie up loose ends.

As these two significant public policies exist in tandem, grappling for attention, how can we start to separate the two? 

A bleak economic outlook

The UK is one of the European nations worst hit by Covid-19, with over 45,000 deaths and 300,000 confirmed cases. It is perhaps also one of the only nations to also be tackling intense negotiations to secure an all-important trade deal by the end of the year.

Up until the 30th June 2020, the government had the option to extend the Brexit transition period – but it didn’t. If the UK isn’t able to agree on trade deal by the end of the year, it may begin to trade under WHO terms. With or without a deal, companies must allow time to adapt to new restrictions, and now is the prime time to start getting to grips with the possibilities.

However, this is something fraught with difficulty too. Current travel and trading restrictions induced by Covid-19 have left companies more willing to trade with those who are in close proximity to them. In essence, we’re witnessing deglobalisation – and for the UK, this poses a real threat, as our European neighbours are even more likely to favour free trading with other EU members rather than maintaining our existing bonds.

Preparing for what’s to come

After previously saying that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit would be disastrous for the UK, and following weeks of mounting tension over the government’s handling of Covid-19, Sir Mark Sedwill, Britain’s top civil servant, announced that he will step down from his role in September. 

He’s not alone, as over the next few months it’s predicted that several other leading civil servants will throw in the towel. Having had no choice but to shift their focus to the coronavirus crisis, the government must now look towards to the recovery phase of their plan.

In January, the new immigration system will place further restrictions on low-skilled roles, and businesses are advised to upskill their existing talent and consider strategic international hires. Automation and digital transformation will remain a priority too, as social distancing measures may still be impacting the workplace and business travel.

Covid-19 has consumed our full attention, taken the spotlight of Brexit and caused further upheaval to the UK economy, but it’s time to shift the focus once again. It’s going to be almost impossible to distinguish between the economic impact of coronavirus and that of the looming trade deal – although one thing is for certain; we must ensure that we are adequately prepared to deal with the ripple effects of each.

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