UK will struggle to deal with Brexit alongside Covid, says thinktank

Devolved administrations, local authorities and businesses risk being overwhelmed by Brexit implementation on 1 January, unable to deal with it alongside the urgent demands of the second wave of Covid-19, an influential thinktank has said.

Local councils, trading standards officers and port health authorities are all part of the Brexit operation but may find themselves stretched because of the resurgence of the virus, the Institute for Government said.

"The pandemic will make these plans harder.

For example, critical staff may fall ill or need to isolate and resources may well be redirected to the pandemic response.

"And although central government has managed to shift resources back to Brexit preparations after they were redeployed to help with the pandemic earlier this year, there is less capacity among the devolved governments and local authorities to handle both," says report titled Brexit: How Ready is the UK?

While the UK faces a challenging winter, cooperation with local administrations will be more critical than ever not least to understand how the double shock of Covid and Brexit is playing out in key areas including ports, airports and key industries that rely on cross-border supply chains or workforces.

The report comes a day after the National Institute for Economic and Social Research warned that Brexit "on top of Covid-19 is likely to broaden the shock to growth and employment in the first quarter of 2021, weakening the UK's recovery compared with other countries, and reducing productivity in the long run".

Authors of the IfG report commend the government on getting most of the required legislation including the new immigration and agriculture bills through by the end of the year.

But questions remain.

With less than 60 days to go, the government has yet to announce how the UK prosperity fund will work, how it will replace EU funding whether for science or economic development, says the report.

It also predicts that the Northern Ireland protocol cannot be implement in full on time with the IT systems and infrastructure for new border control posts not ready for 1 January.

This will present the government with a challenge to apply the "the letter" of the withdrawal agreement and risk lorry queues in ports such as Liverpool or facilitate the flow of goods without the new regulatory and customs checks in place and risk ending up in the European court of justice.

While trust between the EU and the UK has been badly damaged over Boris Johnson's threat to "disapply" some of the withdrawal agreement, the IfG believes if the offending clauses in the internal market bill are dropped, the EU should "be ready to show some flexibility" on the Northern Ireland protocol.

On border readiness elsewhere in the country, the IfG says "more work is needed" to help business prepare for the new controls which many do not realise apply whether there is a trade deal or not.

"The economic damage wrought by coronavirus has robbed many of the bandwidth, and cash, to do what is needed," it says adding that as recently as late October one third of small businesses were still labouring under the illusion that the transition period would be extended beyond 31 December.

It also criticised the government's communications campaign as concentrating on the opportunities of Brexit rather than making a call to action for businesses.

And it warns that while Whitehall may have the resources and separate work streams on Brexit, Westminster should not be complacent.

"Even if the UK civil service has the necessary resources to do so, the devolved administrations, local authorities and businesses may well be overwhelmed," it says.

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