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Preparing the public for Brexit will be much harder this time around

The government has set itself a huge communications task in attempting to prepare the public for Brexit while also keeping it safe during a pandemic

The government has set itself a huge communications task in attempting to prepare the public for Brexit while also keeping it safe during a pandemic, says Joe Marshall

Little has changed, in practice, during the transition period. But with the government sticking firm to its 31 December deadline, the status quo cannot last much longer. Individuals and business – and the government itself – will all need to take big steps to prepare. At the border alone, 50,000 new customs agents will be needed to deal with up to 250,000 additional customs declarations. These will be required whether or not a deal is reached with the EU.

This presents the government with a difficult task in communicating how the public should prepare – and indeed, what it should prepare for – at a time when most attention, inside government and out, is rightly focused on the coronavirus response.

It is still not clear exactly what the public should prepare for

After four rounds of negotiations, there are still fundamental differences in the UK’s and EU’s positions. Both sides expect talks to continue over summer. This means the public is unlikely to get a clear picture of what the new arrangements will look like in the near future.

While some steps will be needed whether an agreement is reached or not, others will depend on the outcome of negotiations. For instance, a free trade agreement that avoids tariffs and quotas would require businesses to comply with Rules of Origin requirements; these would not apply in a no-deal scenario. Other questions, such as how easy it will be to share data between the UK and EU, are dependent on decisions that will be taken unilaterally by the EU. Meanwhile, the UK government has yet to produce its ‘Border Operating Model’ explaining how the British side of the border will work.

Until these such matters are resolved, it will be difficult for the government to communicate clearly, and, in some instances, almost impossible for the public to prepare. It will also be hard to convince cash-strapped businesses to make preparations that may prove unnecessary. Instead, as in 2019, many just may hold out until the outcome of negotiations is clearer.

There is only so much guidance the public can practically follow

Most businesses, already embattled by the economic impact of coronavirus, do not have the bandwidth to prepare for Brexit. Many have been forced to divert staff working on Brexit to their coronavirus responses, or have had to furlough them or make redundancies.

In many cases, Brexit preparations have been subsumed by the pandemic response, with firms running down their ‘Brexit stockpiles’ to mitigate more immediate disruption to supply chains. Others have spent cash reserves just to stay afloat, exhausting money that could otherwise have been used to ready themselves for the new trading conditions. The prospect of the negotiations proving unsuccessful has caused particular concern, with the Confederation of British Industry warning that many firms are “not remotely prepared” to ready themselves for a no-deal Brexit while also dealing with coronavirus. Even if businesses received comprehensive Brexit guidance, they may struggle to implement it in practice. 

Coronavirus communications could displace the Brexit readiness campaign

As the National Audit Office (NAO) reported in January, the 2019 ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign was a complex task, needing to reach multiple audiences and requiring cross-government co-ordination – which proved difficult even when Brexit was the government’s key priority. The campaign also ultimately failed to convince businesses to act, in part because the exceptional politics surrounding the Benn Bill made a no-deal Brexit look unlikely.

This time around the government will face a different problem, as it attempts to run two major communications campaigns side by side. This puts huge pressure on staff across Whitehall, some of whom have been transferred from work on the Brexit to the coronavirus response. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has highlighted that the Cabinet Office – responsible for both campaigns – will be particularly affected. HMRC, and the business and health and social care departments – likely to make the largest contributions to the Brexit campaign – will be similarly stretched.

Senior civil servants have told the PAC they believe the government can run both campaigns concurrently, though have already admitted it will be a challenge. If pushed, it seems likely that more immediate coronavirus communications would come first, potentially risking Brexit readiness.

Social distancing will add a practical obstacle to Brexit preparation ground work

As the former chief executive of the civil service, John Manzoni, told the PAC in March, communication campaigns need to raise awareness, build understanding and promote action. He pointed to the success of the ‘ground campaign’ of roadshows, face-to-face meetings and pop-up events in significantly improving business readiness in 2019. In 2020, with gatherings restricted and social-distancing measures likely to persist for the foreseeable future, such events will be harder to run.

Communicating effectively about how to prepare for Brexit has always been a difficult task. The ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign has been helpful practice – giving government a better sense of which businesses and individuals it needs to reach and providing valuable lessons that could improve its new communications campaign.

But with just months left in the transition period and coronavirus set to divert attention for the foreseeable future, not to mention huge uncertainty about what the economic landscape will look like at the end of the year, the communications challenge has only got harder. Soon, the government will have to make clear how it is going to meet this test. 

Johnson government
Institute for Government

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