LONDON — Brexit means Brexit, even when it comes to coronavirus.
The U.K. is bracing for an increase in confirmed cases of those infected but on the day it published its “action plan” to combat an outbreak, it was abundantly clear London does not want to lean on the EU to help coordinate its response.
While still paying into the EU budget and able to access EU infectious disease databases until the end of the transition period, the U.K. is officially out of the club, without representation — and no exception has been made for the growing international health crisis, the first such event to test the post-Brexit relationship.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock is not attending — and has not been invited to — meetings of EU health ministers to coordinate the Continents response and there are also doubts over the U.K.s continued membership of the EUs Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) for pandemics.
As Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his health secretary laid out the details of the U.K.s strategy, several health experts voiced concern about the apparent lack of cooperation with the EU. “Not taking the best public health approach for political reasons is foolish,” said Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“Given that viruses and bacteria pay no attention to international boundaries, it is incomprehensible that you would put up borders to international efforts to control them.” — Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
The opposition Labour Party also raised a red flag on the issue of the EWRS. “Disease knows no borders,” Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said. “We cant build a wall or an iron curtain around these islands. Why then is the government apparently walking away from the EU Early Warning and Response System, which plays such a vital role in pandemic preparations?”
However, the U.K. government insists its working perfectly well with international partners — and that it doesnt need the EU superstructure to speak to its neighbors.
“I have regular engagement with colleagues from across Europe,” Hancock told MPs on Tuesday. Referring to reports in the Telegraph that he has been overruled by No. 10, and that the U.K. will not be seeking long-term membership of the EWRS in its future relationship negotiation with the EU, Hancock added: “Some of the reports that Ive seen are not accurate. Questions of engagement with the EU on matters of health security are a matter for the negotiations.”
The U.K.s negotiating mandate, published last week, says — vaguely — that it is “open to exploring cooperation between the UK and EU in other specific and narrowly defined areas where this is in the interest of both sides, for example on matters of health security.”
But the message for now is that Londons non-EU channels of international engagement are serving it perfectly well in coordinating the coronavirus response. The government is focusing on engagement at the World Health Organization, G7 and bilateral level, one official involved in Whitehalls coronavirus response said. Hancock was in “near daily” contact with his counterparts in affected countries, including Germany, Italy, the U.S., South Korea and Japan, the official said.
Hancock is not expected to attend Fridays meeting of European health ministers in Brussels, a No. 10 spokesperson said. When asked about the matter, and if the U.K. was indeed planning on cutting ties with the EWRS, Johnson sidestepped the question, saying the government continues “to have global coordination that you expect.”
The U.K. official added that in coronavirus planning meetings within Whitehall, the question of the EWRS had not come up.
“This obsession with a system that people hadnt heard of til days ago feels a lot like people trying to create a political argument,” said the official, who denied that engagement with international partners had suffered as a result of the U.K.s departure from the EU.
But Wenham of the LSE said that given the amount of travel that takes place between the U.K. and the EU and the evidence of how diseases such as coronavirus have spread, “it seems crazy that we wouldnt be working with them to try and detect outbreaks as soon as possible.”
“We build these systems to be able to mitigate and contain risk as much as possible and minimize disruption to the U.K.,” she explained. Not being within these systems puts a major spanner in the works, Wenham said.
The concerns come as the U.K.