Situation in the United Kingdom: Intensive care shock concerning Boris, herd immunity, forgotten Brexit, and digital relations

19.05.2020

Export Adviser of Enterprise Estonia in the United Kingdom Heiki Pant writes about the situation in the United Kingdom, where the corona crisis has uncovered other vital societal issues than Brexit.

Although most countries are trying to battle the coronavirus by imposing isolation measures, the United Kingdom first stood out for their attempt to establish herd immunity, which was proposed by their chief medical adviser. The idea was received with harsh criticism when the models revealed a possible number of deaths.

Whilst living in England, I am gradually getting used to a word like ‘emergency’. Last year, the local government declared a climate emergency. During the winter flu season, the British health care system is usually in a state of emergency. Furthermore, there is an emergency with homeless people in need of social assistance, soup kitchens, etc. So, this word is heard very often here, and perhaps the main difference now is that the coronavirus has created an actual emergency – a real isolation that has not been seen on these islands before. A society with its one cornerstone being football has brought a new sense of reality, as this sport has also been paused due to isolation.

The fact that the British Prime Minister, whose character is essentially bigger than life itself, had to fight for his life in the intensive care unit, brought the seriousness of the situation home to everyone. #PrayForBoris (‘pray for the recovery of Boris’) was one of the most popular online phrases, and Queen Elizabeth also gave her lending hand in such a power vacuum by addressing the people via TV and radio in a short period of time. Today, the Prime Minister has been discharged from the hospital and allowed to recover at his countryside residence. So, air pressure in the Prime Minister’s lungs and respiratory assistance levels are no longer nationally important issues, but have been replaced by expressions of appreciation to the heroes of the medical system.

In connection with isolation measures, it is important to understand that the British consider their freedoms crucial. They advertise their country globally as the anchor of their freedoms and civil liberties, and suddenly the government has imposed exceptionally strict rules on isolation and social distancing. However, the scenes from Italy and Spain have also made people realise the seriousness of the situation, and even those, who are usually very noisy defenders of personal freedoms, have agreed with the government’s measures this time.

Rebirth of experts

One of the phenomena taking place in this society is the rebirth of experts, their re-honouring process. The Brexit referendum was a process that divided society, and its slogan was an expression by Michael Gove, who was one of the ministers and supporters of Brexit at that time, saying ‘we have had enough of experts’, meaning that they were sick of experts. Whilst most economic experts predicted the impact of Brexit to be negative in the long run, emotional arguments about economic autonomy led to a collective perception in society that Brexit has been voted in favour, the decision has been made, and the process in this direction goes on. However, the corona crisis has brought out a whole new aspect: the number of deaths has been added to the formula as a new variable, and it has turned the eyes of the public to experts, whose remarks are worthy again.

Today, Brexit is completely in the background, and the fact that both Brussels-based chief negotiator Michel Barnier and British chief negotiator are both infected with the coronavirus shows that there does not seem to be an alternative to extending the transitional period. The coronavirus will dominate so powerfully in the coming months that Brexit is just not a priority at the moment. The current focus is on adapting to new circumstances, as there are no quick fixes.

No one doubts that the blow to the economy will be severe. Over the past decade, the British have taken control of their public finances through austerity measures (the United Kingdom’s public debt was equal to that of Greece in the early years of Cameron’s rule), however, the corona crisis has led to a situation in which the Conservative government is intervening in the economy for the first time with a measure where up to 80 percent of corporate wage funds will be covered through the printing of money. In this way, the British government has never intervened in the economy before, and analysts have suggested that the measures proposed by the Conservatives would normally have been ridiculed as socialist radical, even if proposed by the left-wing Labour. Desperate times need desperate measures.

Enterprises must adapt to the new circumstances

Today marks the first day in the economy after Easter spent indoors – new circumstances change the existing business models and also create opportunities for new players in the field. The online trade revolution already took place in British commerce a few years ago, and the role of the online environment in retail business exploded even before the corona crisis. Estonian manufacturers, who have their online channels in place and deliver goods to the United Kingdom, may continue to do business in certain product groups as before. Here it is important to keep the communication with partners active and to give a signal that new circumstances have been adapted to.

I have also been in contact with various digital enterprises with offices and customers in the British market, and many of them have come up with new initiatives. The aim is to maintain own market share in the new circumstances and to inform partners about the ability to continue to deliver.

Most certainly, there are fields where the crisis has cut off all opportunities to continue business (tourism, events and entertainment, etc.) and where people-to-people contacts and experiences during the crisis become important. Again, it is vital to keep one’s contact alive, discussing together how to proceed with the cooperation.

Experts here (after having revived) have pointed out that in the new circumstances, communication via FaceTime or Skype has become more commonplace, allowing to keep vital relations alive and confirm cooperation for the future. Such calls may often be of a more psychological support in their nature (‘How do you cope?’) and much more privacy-related than is usually the case. It can also provide an opportunity to contact with people who have previously been out of reach for communication, who have been running from meeting to meeting, and who have been blocked by an army of secretaries and assistants.

Today’s market situation has emphasised people-to-people contacts in many sectors, and the digital communication we have experienced together may prove to be a key aspect after the crisis. The crisis has drawn attention to the fact that we are all humans and equally vulnerable. All kinds of corporate structures and chains that have previously made key people ‘market gods’ suddenly find themselves in front of their computer screens at home – with their families and children, trying to find solutions to the new situation.

On the part of Enterprise Estonia, we will continue cooperation with the existing partners in the United Kingdom to find new opportunities to enter the market through online channels and digital communication. Estonia is known as a small digital tiger who could be a new promising partner to assist in coping in the new situation.

The project is co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

Export Adviser of Enterprise Estonia in the United Kingdom
Andreas.Heiki.Pant@eas.ee

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