On December 8, we hosted a fantastic panel discussion on the major themes that will be shaping the news in 2021: Brexit, the continued effects of COVID-19, and the incoming Biden administration. With so many of next year’s events still uncertain, we wanted to focus on the big issues to look out for and give journalists some ideas on how to approach them. Scroll down to watch the discussion in full.
- Professor Susan Michie, Director, UCL Centre for Behaviour Change and advisor to SAGE and Independent SAGE
- Dr Ali Nouri, President, Federation of American Scientists
- Tom Standage, Deputy Editor, The Economist and Editor, The World in 2021
- Georgina Wright, Senior Researcher, Institute for Government
- Nicole Wilkins, Publisher, Foresight News (chair)
Look out for: deal/no-deal disruption, new UK-EU relationship, government communication strategy, Global Britain and UK diplomacy
Key dates: First day post-transition period (January 1); Boris Johnson Liaison Committee appearance (January 13); UK Integrated Review published (January/February tbc); first post-transition European Council (March 25-26); Q1 2021 GDP (May 12); G7 Summit (summer); Conservative Party Conference (October 3-6, tbc); COP26 Conference (Nov 1-12)
We started with a discussion on Brexit: the Institute for Government’s Georgina Wright took us through the current state of play of negotiations, hours after Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen spoke and decided the terms for an agreement were still ‘not there’. Wright pointed out that whether a deal is done or not, from January 1 the UK and EU will be trading on radically different terms, and there will be disruption either way, most visibly in the form of queues at the border in Kent.
From a political perspective, Wright said that Johnson would have to ‘own’ disruption in the event of a deal, whereas without a deal he could shift the blame to Brussels. The Economist deputy editor Tom Standage agreed, saying that because in his view any deal at this point would be so thin that it won’t make much of a difference, Johnson might prefer a no-deal scenario where he could say he had tried but blame the EU for the resulting damage.
If he does get a deal, Wright said that Johnson has proven himself to be a good salesman, and with his parliamentary majority is likely to be able to get a deal through parliament without opening himself up to a leadership challenge next year. Communication will be key in 2021: the government needs to control the narrative on the opportunities they’ve promised will come from Brexit even as UK businesses and residents experience the increased bureaucracy and disruption that will come with it.
However Brexit is resolved, we’ll move into 2021 with an eye on what’s next: what UK-EU cooperation looks like once the transition period is done, and how the new ‘Global Britain’ acts on the world stage in what will be a big year for UK diplomacy.
The UK is hosting both the G7 summit and the COP26 talks, giving Johnson the opportunity to make international cooperation and climate change key pillars of the UK’s post-Brexit policy, with green infrastructure likely to be a running theme. Standage said it wouldn’t take much for a UK-chaired G7 to do a better job in 2021, pointing to a striking lack of leadership on COVID-19 in contrast with the role it took in the global financial crisis. Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote that it ‘beggars belief’ that the G7 replaced its summit with a one-hour phone call in ‘the biggest health crisis in living memory’, and Johnson will be keen not to give him more ammunition now that he’s chairing the group.
Look out for: vaccine rollout, the role of science in policymaking, public health communication strategies, continued distancing and masks, lessons learned, return to ‘normal’
Key dates: vaccine authorisations and rollout (Q1/ongoing); World Economic Forum Davos Dialogues (January 25-29); Anthony Fauci at AAAS annual meeting (February 8); anniversary of WHO pandemic declaration (March 11); anniversary of UK lockdown (March 23); UK furlough scheme ends (March 31); World Health Assembly (May 18-19); 2020 European Championships (June 11-July 11); Tokyo Olympics (July 23-August 8); anniversary of first vaccines (December 8)
The theme of international cooperation continued into our discussion on COVID-19, with Federation of American Scientists President Dr Ali Nouri and UCL Centre for Behaviour Change Director/SAGE advisor Professor Susan Michie both critical of western countries’ resistance to learning from international expertise from the East Asian countries that have handled respiratory disease outbreaks before, as well as from the WHO and countries that have done well managing both the pandemic and economic harm reduction.
Nouri said that there has been a ‘clear disconnect between science and policy-making’ in countries such as the US and the UK, with claims that understanding of asymptomatic and airborne transmission came late at odds with the scientific evidence presented as early as January. He said there should be reflection in 2021 about revitalising the role of science in public policy and hoped that politicians would not try to move on quickly from the crisis without learning lessons and investing in pandemic preparedness.
Nouri and Michie both stressed the importance of focusing on behavioural, environmental, social and systems interventions (BESSI), meaning continuing to build out effective test and trace systems, and, most importantly, communicating effectively to the public around low-tech interventions like wearing a mask, social distancing and isolating.
Michie said the UK has ‘failed dramatically and continues to fail’ on using established and local expertise from social and public infrastructure to ensure behavioural interventions work, and pointed out that only four per cent of research funding has gone into BESSI prevention methods.
These failures around communication and getting the public on board are even more important as we look to vaccine rollout in 2021, with a high level of uptake needed to ensure population-level immunity. While a small number of people are anti-vaccination, Michie said a much larger number are ‘vaccine hesitant’, with questions about new technology and the speed at which it’s been approved. She believes the key to getting that group comfortable enough to take a vaccine is transparency –acknowledging their concerns and addressing them with information from trusted, scientific sources rather than pharmaceutical companies or politicians, with full data published in a way that is accessible to the average person.
Nouri said the US will be fighting an uphill battle against vaccine hesitancy due to the politicisation of key health agencies under Donald Trump’s administration and a focus on quick results that goes against the deliberate, science-based process that helps foster trust in the vaccines. In 2021, Nouri says we need to rethink the role of government in empowering the scientific and public health community to communicate to the public, pointing to studies showing that disinformation about the pandemic has literally killed people.
On the big question of when we might see a return to ‘normal’ next year, both Michie and Nouri were cautious. Michie said that the UK government’s talk of an Easter milestone is ‘political PR’, not science, and criticised the ‘triumphalism and false expectations’ that told us the pandemic would be over by Christmas. Michie said she doesn’t think we’ll see big progress until the autumn; global events like the Olympics, re-scheduled this year for July and August, require worldwide vaccination levels that won’t be possible by that point.
Nouri said we’re looking at another six to 12 months at least until we’ve reached herd immunity, saying that even in an overly-optimistic scenario we won’t see large numbers of Americans vaccinated until the summer. He thought September was a more likely timeframe for life to begin to return to normal.
Look out for: Georgia Senate runoffs, the return of experts, stronger federal government, foreign policy (multilateral institutions), Iran, China, a return to ‘normal’, UK-US relations, the transatlantic relationship, first 100 days
Key dates: Georgia Senate runoffs (January 5); Electoral College vote count (January 6); inauguration (January 20); address to joint session of Congress (February, tbc); NATO Summit (February, tbc); 100 days in office (April 29); White House Correspondents Association Dinner (May 1); US withdrawal from WHO due to take effect (July 6); UN General Assembly general debate (September 21); G20 Summit (October 30-31); COP26 Conference (November 1-12)
Tom Standage drew an interesting analogy between the pandemic and Joe Biden’s upcoming presidency: in both cases, everyone wants to go back to normal, but it’s going to be a different normal.
Biden’s domestic priorities will be getting a handle on the coronavirus response and restarting the economy, as well as potentially ongoing battles with the Senate to get anything done, pending the outcome of the Georgia runoffs next month. Dr Nouri said that ‘the adults are back, in many ways’, with a return of experts and people who believe that the federal government and civil service have a role to play in the response and recovery, in contrast to Donald Trump’s strategy of outsourcing responsibility for managing cases to the state governments.
When it comes to foreign policy and geopolitics, Standage said the question will be the extent to which Biden can ‘put Humpty Dumpty back together again’, repairing the damage that Trump’s presidency has done to the rules-based international order. Standage listed just some of Trump’s actions that Biden will need to think about reversing or revisiting: pulling out of the WHO, Paris Climate agreement, Iran nuclear agreement, TPP, and Open Skies Agreement; undermining NATO; and paralysing the WTO. He said that while Trump used the phrase ‘America First’, Biden has already started using ‘America is back’, suggesting a resumption of Washington’s international leadership responsibilities.
But while Biden can re-join the WHO or Paris Climate Agreements relatively quickly, some issues, like Iran, are trickier, and there will be a limit to how much Biden can do and how fast, with his attention focused mainly on his domestic issues. Standage said that while it will take longer than we think and it will be a different normal, we should begin to see signs early on that we’re heading in the right direction on less combative foreign policy from the US.
One area where people may be surprised to see a larger degree of continuity with Trump’s policies is China, where he is unlikely to get rid of the Trump-imposed tariffs – Standage said that the west has come to realise that admitting China to the world trading system isn’t going to change it into a democracy, and that Biden would continue to fight on trade and human rights.
However, the key difference will be that the battle will be waged ‘much more competently’, making use of allies that Trump chose to pick his own fights with. On those traditional alliances, Georgina Wright said that the Biden/Harris administration will be a more predictable international partner for the likes of the UK and the EU, and pointed to the likelihood of much better cooperation on some of the issues flagged in their initial leaders’ calls with the president-elect: trade reform, security and climate change.
When it comes to the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US, Wright said it’s about much more than just the personal relationship between Johnson and Biden, crossing all levels of government, business, civil society, and the scientific community, and would continue regardless of whether the leaders see eye to eye on every issue.
However, the UK’s departure from the EU does raise the question of its diminished influence over its EU partners and its role in the transatlantic relationship; Wright said the UK’s EU membership was seen as a strategic asset in Washington, and it remains to be seen how the UK will cooperate with the EU and with individual member states, something that could be set out in more detail in the forthcoming Integrated Review (due early in 2021).
Finally, we talked briefly about the prospect of a UK-US trade deal next year, which Wright said was probably wishful thinking – Biden’s immediate focus will be domestic, and the bullish American negotiators are not going to make it easy. Any trade deal would also need to get through Congress, meaning the outcome of the Georgia runoffs matters for trade deals, too. Wright said we might see some continuing negotiations in 2021 but a final deal is unlikely.
Thanks again to our panellists for sharing their insight!
Watch the full discussion:
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