By Arj Singh
no-deal crisis planning, Defra is also understood to have done detailed research into consumer behaviour and is helping retailers like supermarkets with their messaging and response as people panic buy and photos of empty shelves go viral online.
British Retail Consortium spokesperson Tom Holder said: “The BRC and our members are taking learnings from the no-deal planning as they begin to craft their messages to their customers in the wake of the spike in demand provoked by coronavirus.”
While a lot of the big picture no-deal planning carried out by departments was irrelevant and incomplete, some of the central power structures erected in Whitehall are almost certain to help deal with coronavirus.
Joe Owen of the Institute for Government said the civil contingencies secretariat which played a big role in Operation Yellowhammer is likely to be playing a part in responding to the outbreak.
Its work during no deal planning involved “rapid response, monitoring what pressures are being felt in different parts of the system, reporting up and taking decisions in a kind of rhythm that might feel quite similar to this.”
“The fact they stood those up in March and October means they may feel like the wheels have been greased,” Owen said.
Ministers will also be accustomed to daily Cobra crisis meetings as they will mirror the work of the ‘XO’ no deal planning committee ran by Michael Gove.
“It’s ministers and officials in the same room working out what are the big issues in the short-term, what are the longer term things to be thinking about, taking in advice across Whitehall,” Owen said.
“That was one of the key battle rhythm meetings in planning for no deal which happened for six months under Johnson.
“And so ministers presumably will feel quite used to sitting down in a room being given lots of information and having officials there to quiz and to talk through action plans.”
The government’s top secret Operation Kingfisher economic plan to support businesses if the economy crashed after no-deal may have helped with chancellor Rishi Sunak’s £12bn coronavirus stimulus in Wednesday’s Budget.
The project worked on a potential economic response to help firms with cash flow problems due to blockages at the border or if they went out of business – for example, if they did not have the correct certificates to trade with the EU.
“That thinking might not map perfectly over to the sorts of areas where you expect to have disruption but it could do in some areas,” Owen said.
There is a risk, however, that diverting attention and resources from no deal planning to deal with coronavirus could harm the UK’s preparations for new border checks and other disruption caused when the Brexit transition period ends on December 31.
The government needs to put in place a new immigration system, a new border system, Irish Sea trade checks, new regulators and new standards, with 25,000 civil servants working on Brexit.
“Brexit readiness is not going to be ministers or the most senior officials’ priority, it will be coronavirus,” Owen said.
“So how Whitehall copes with the enormous readiness task when it’s no longer top priority and might have resources diverted could be a big issue.”
Johnson has so far ruled out extending the transition but this might become unsustainable as the economic consequences of coronavirus spill into the summer and potentially beyond, with the Office for Budget Responsibility warning a recession is “quite possible”.
Owen said: “If coronavirus hits the economy at anywhere near the kind of levels people are predicting and we expect disruption to last until at least the summer, government admits there will be disruption and supply chains will take a hit when the Brexit transition ends, are they going to want to do that overnight on new year’s eve if the first half of this year, possibly even more, has been so difficult?”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The UK is well prepared for these kinds of outbreaks and is working closely with the devolved administrations, World Health Organisation, and our international partners to keep the whole of the UK safe.”