“So little cause for carollings of such ecstatic sound was written on terrestrial things afar or nigh around, that I could think there trembled through his happy good-night air some blessed Hope, whereof he knew and I was unaware.”
We may think of them as very separate issues, but in fact the two big challenges confronting us - Covid and Brexit - are being interwoven in an extraordinary dance of cause and effect. The dancefloor is comprised of the chequerboard of health, the economy and our future relationship with Europe.
And, of course, those two dancing challenges are being steered, so far as they are able, by our leaders who know there is so much at stake. Sometimes they deliberately use one challenge to confound or influence the other - at other times, fate takes over.
So in this commentary we look at this extraordinary dance which is being played out in front of our eyes, and is affecting every aspect of our lives.
Firstly, what evidence is there that the new strain of Covid-19, which has cancelled Christmas gatherings across so much of the United Kingdom, is a purely British phenomenon? It is said to have started in Kent, which is also the entry point from Europe and notably from Belgium: a country which is suffering a Covid-19 mortality rate 60% higher than the United Kingdom.
Yet a great swathe of EU countries have chosen to bar not only travel from Britain, but freight as well: they can continue exporting to us, but not importing from us. There's no way such constraints would - or could - be placed on individual member countries of the EU. It is hard to interpret this aggressive stance as anything other than attempting to turn the screws on the Brexit negotiations.
If this is the case, it is very likely to backfire - since it will encourage UK importers to look still more closely at trading sources beyond the European Union.
Then, there is the economic impact of Brexit on the United Kingdom, if there is no deal emerging from these interminable conversations. If the Covid-19 smokescreen provides an excuse for EU leaders to turn the Brexit screw with a trade blockade, it also certainly provides the UK Government with shelter from economic fallout of Brexit. Economics is not a science, it is an art: and there is no way that its experts will be able to disentangle the consequence of these two great challenges of our time.
When the vaccine kicks in across the country, economic growth will return with a roar - whether or not there is a Brexit trade deal. We will hail the success of Britain making its way in the world, and the fact that so much of it will be due to the post-Covid bounce-back will be forgotten.
Finally, there is the art of political decision-making itself - whether over Brexit, or over the shape of the UK lockdown. The new mutant strain of Covid-19 is bearing all the responsibility of closing down Christmas, but in economic terms the timing of the new lockdown is well co-ordinated to have the least impact on the economy, falling over the 2-3 weeks when we are least productive as a nation. If Nadhim Zahawi and his team of vaccineers can get weaving during this period, we may yet avoid a fourth lockdown as we move into February next year.
Our health and economy may seem at such loggerheads, but their interweaving relationship is critical: not only for the short term, but also for the long-term. How they interplay - and to a large extent, how they are interplayed - will set national destinies for years ahead.
The Covid-19 crisis has already changed the destiny of the United States: we may now, with the EU trade blockade of United Kingdom, be seeing it prepare us for the brave new world beyond Europe.
Finally - all this seems quite heavy for Christmas week, and it will continue to weigh down on us throughout the next fortnight. It is a strange Christmas indeed, when even the Archbishop of Canterbury advises people to avoid communal church worship ‘if at risk’ - but we’re all risk, whether of the debilitating effects of ‘Long Covid’ or of passing the virus on to those who are more vulnerable.
So, please join Christmas services online: stay home, stay safe. All this will blow over and, in six months’ time, we’ll be looking to the sunny uplands.
With best wishes for a happy Christmas
Gavin Oldham OBE