The impact of the pandemic has been so pervasive that every prominent political and social issue facing the UK has become enmeshed with it.
While it would be foolish for anyone to predict the future, it seems fairly certain that for the United Kingdom, 2021 and immediately beyond is going be difficult. Such a future is fairly certain due to the direct ramifications and further evolutions of things set in motion in 2020 and the few years before. The inept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit are colliding. Rather than a huge sense of relief such as what many might feel in the United States, the start of 2021 will likely be chaotic in the UK.
The impact of the pandemic has been so pervasive that every prominent political and social issue facing the UK has become enmeshed with it. While the lesson of 2020 is that there is a real possibility that something unpredictable or unknown could have dramatic impact, some known and inter-related issues will significantly influence life in the UK in 2021 and beyond. Foremost among the issues include Brexit, the continued health impacts of COVID, the economy, internal devolution politics, and President Biden.
Over 64,000 people have died from COVID-related causes, and as of mid-December, much of the UK is going into lockdown again due to a sharp rise in infections and deaths. What is different during this third cycle of shutting things down is the vaccine. On 8 December, the UK began the largest vaccination programme in the country’s history. It is starting to give the vaccine to people who are 80 years or older, long-term facility care workers, as well as medical personnel at high risk of exposure. This is a significant achievement for the UK, not least for the researchers, healthcare system, and the politicians. At least they will be able to say that despite the mishandling of the initial months and spread of infections, the UK was the first to deliver a vaccine to its people. The vaccine, so far as we know, does not prevent infections nor does it prevent further transmissions. What it does do effectively is prevent serious disease and death of those who become infected. And a profoundly valuable thing the vaccine will do is blunt any of the potential analysis or criticisms of an official COVID inquiry. There is little doubt that there will be an inquiry, but we can expect to repeatedly hear, ‘we did the best that we could,’ and ‘we helped produce and deliver a vaccine.’
The vaccine, no matter the actual details about what it actually does and does not do, provides much needed oxygen for the economy to start firing up again. A peculiar thing has been happening in the UK as in other countries. While the economy has severely contracted, it has not done as badly as it could have done. Indeed, the global equity markets have been surging. And it is likely that as the UK government will continue to support wherever is necessary, the equity markets will keep moving upward. The dark side of the peculiar COVID economy, of course, is rising unemployment and vastly reduced incomes. Child malnutrition is increasing, which means also that child development is likely slowing down more generally, increasing inequalities among a cohort of children as well as between social groups for years to come. Those who have had resources to get through 2020, or perhaps, even benefit from surging equity markets, are the winners of this pandemic. As 2021 starts to unfold, rising deprivations and social inequalities will become more visible. That is, once things start opening up again, people will begin to see the effects upon each other.
31 January 2020 was supposed to be a day of great celebration for the UK Prime Minister and a great majority of the UK population. It was the day the UK officially left the European Union. Indeed, it was reported that the main reason Prime Minister Johnson did not attend some of the emergency meetings regarding the unfolding pandemic in January was because he was very focused on the momentous event of Brexit. The UK and EU agreed there would be 11 months for negotiating new rules for relating to each other — ‘a trade deal.’ And, it has been said that one of the reasons why the UK responded so poorly to the pandemic is because the entire civil service and political leadership was focused on ‘Getting Brexit Done.’
As the deadline of 31 December approaches, there is no deal with the EU. This is not the kind of situation where a last-minute negotiation will produce an agreement; the number of issues are too many, and too inter-twined. This is going to have enormous consequences across all sectors, for the government, and most people’s daily lives. Two places where people will feel the impact will be at the grocery stores and in their holidays. At the least, some foods will become more expensive. And holidays to warm climates or weekend trips to major European cities will be far from seamless. In fact, EU countries may make it even more difficult for visitors from the UK given its COVID situation.
During 2020, the Scottish would bristle every time the international media would report on how badly the United Kingdom was responding to COVID. The great amount of self-governance or devolution among the different nations has meant that they have implemented different policies, with differing results. The Scottish express much pride in acting sooner and implementing policies that have seemed to mitigate the pandemic until recently. In contrast, most of the deaths have been in England. Aside from nations, the pandemic has also raised tensions between the Centre and other major metropolitan cities and regions. For example, requiring increasing restrictions in certain cities and regions because of rising infections while not providing further financial support to those areas seems unfair and further burdens regional governments. 2021 is surely going to see more of these intra-national governance and devolution issues, and perhaps increased resentment against the centre and parties in power.
The momentum behind Brexit and increased anti-EU sentiment in the UK was to some visible extent emboldened by the rise of Trump in the US. Indeed, there has been clear evidence that various individuals spearheading the movement to leave the EU were in contact with Trump and his administration. And that many of the methods used in the US elections to elect Trump were also being deployed in the Brexit vote. There have also been many frequent comparisons between Johnson and Trump. The election of Joe Biden immediately changed what the UK could do in many domains including Brexit, COVID response, devolution, and so forth. Biden will aim to build multilateralism again, try to isolate some of the rising authoritarian powers, and aim to contain China. And this is likely to mean that the UK will have to follow Biden’s lead. Following the US lead will be familiar to the people of the UK. What is going to be new is that the Black Americans who got Biden elected are going to make the connection that the UK played a fundamental role in creating their predicament. I am predicting a picture with Kamala Harris, Meghan Markle, and Prince Harry to go viral.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.