If we are to mitigate the worst economic consequences of Covid-19 and protect as many jobs as possible, we need to take the right approach.
For a start, Whitehall’s economic departments need to be focused on an unprecedented programme of investment in our economy, skills and job creation – not on dealing with the catastrophic impact of a no-deal Brexit.
The coronavirus crisis is triggering the biggest economic emergency we have faced since the Second World War, with unemployment predicted to reach levels not seen for many decades. The last thing we need now is more chaos and uncertainty from an impending Brexit cliff edge, and the distraction that ongoing negotiations will cause within the heart of government at such a critical time.
Instead, ministers should be single-mindedly embarking on a wartime-style national effort to ensure we can bounce back as quickly as possible and avoid the far-reaching consequences of long-term mass unemployment.
That’s why I’ve been urging the government to put political ideology aside, listen to our expert business leaders and seek an extension to post-Brexit trade negotiations so that we can focus on protecting jobs and livelihoods. This is not about whether people supported remaining in the EU or leaving. That debate is over. We have left the EU. It’s about doing the right thing for the country at a moment of national crisis.
The reality is that the negotiations with the EU are highly unlikely to progress towards a meaningful conclusion while the pandemic continues. This means that the damaging and dangerous threat of a no deal in six months’ time will increase again at the worst possible moment – just when we are striving to save jobs and get the economy back on track. And even if we are able to reach a deal, it will fall short of what’s best for our economy.
The Confederation of British Industry has warned that many businesses would simply be unable to cope with the pressures of no deal after what they have already had to endure in recent months. Many businesses have been forced to use all their cash reserves to survive, leaving them exposed and vulnerable to any future economic shock – which a bad deal or no-deal Brexit will cause.
Businesses also need time to adapt and innovate within the new Covid-19 world, without having to deal with the drain on resources that would come with having to adjust their systems to new onerous regulatory requirements regarding imports, exports and attracting talent. An extension to the transition period would not only give businesses and our public services the certainty they desperately need, but would provide the space for the economic recovery effort to have a fighting chance.
Delaying the negotiations would also enable us as a country to switch the focus of our interaction with the EU away from the confrontations of Brexit and towards the practical European co-operation that would help both sides – whether it’s on shared medical research for vaccines or a proper co-ordinated economic response.
Unfortunately, intergovernmental action on Covid-19 has been lacklustre at best so far – hindered by the rise in narrow nationalism around the world, including here in the UK. But it’s not too late for us to change our approach and for Britain to provide the international global leadership we have shown in the past.
No one anticipated these key trade negotiations would take place at a time when all governments are rightly focused on fighting a global pandemic and the devastating economic consequences. It would not be a sign of weakness or failure to ask for an extension, but evidence that the government is willing to put the national interest ahead of political dogma.
Sadiq Khan is the mayor of London
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