A second wave of COVID-19 and a winter lockdown would be a “really awful” prospect for Britain, former prime minister Tony Blair has warned.
In an exclusive interview on The World Tomorrow, a Sky News podcast, Mr Blair said that this would pose a “serious, serious problem” for the UK – more than most anticipated, and raised the possibility that the consequent economic damage would cause a further lurch into political populism.
Mr Blair said that if he were in government today, his main fear would be the risk of a resurgence of the disease.
“If the economic damage is really, really bad, then the populism – left and right – that was there before COVID comes back in an even sharper and harder way. It’s the big unknown. We just can’t tell. And a lot will depend on whether there’s a resurgence of the disease in the autumn and winter.”
He said that a potential second wave could pose “a serious, serious problem, because to go back into lockdown is going to be really tough,” he said. “Let’s be frank: lockdown has been a lot easier because the days are longer, the weather’s been better; it’s not such a hardship to lock down when you’re in the summer months. Now think of locking down in November, December. It’s going to be really awful.
“If you do get a resurgence in the winter, then you’ve got to have such a big operation in place to handle it without going into [a severe lockdown].”
In his interview with former chancellor Sajid Javid and Sky News, the former prime minister also warned of the geopolitical repercussions of the disease, which, he said, could intensify existing fissures and tensions.
He said the “biggest geopolitical challenge of the 21st century” is the West’s relationship with China.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult and troubling. America and China were limbering up to be hostile with each other prior to COVID but all of that’s going to be accelerated by it. And when the two biggest powers in the world are at loggerheads with each other, of course global co-operation becomes more difficult. Which is why I think it’s incredibly important that we do reserve some space for co-operation with China.”
His comments come amid growing tensions surrounding both the US and UK relationship with China – whether on the fronts of technology, the military and broader geopolitics, for instance China’s treatment of Hong Kong.
Mr Blair, who since leaving government has set up institutes offering advice to politicians around the world, signalled that the current era of globalisation was about to give way to another somewhat different era.
“I find this in all the governments I work with around the world through my institutes. They are, I think, going to repatriate some of their supply chains – not just for medical equipment but they’ll look at other supply chains as well. So there’ll be a certain repatriation of manufacturing maybe.
“I think it’s highly unlikely that globalisation itself will go into retreat because there are just so many ways that people connect with each other. But I think it may take a somewhat different form.”
He said the UK could still play a role in geopolitics, but that involved committing itself to the US and Europe – not retreating into itself.
“If you want to play a global role, you’ve got to put chips on the table,” he said. “People always overcomplicate geopolitics at the international level. It’s perfectly simple. If you want to exercise power and you’re not one of the two biggest powers in the world, you exercise it in alliance with others. Without going back over old wounds, that’s one of the reasons why I was opposed to Brexit.
“But the fact is, Britain could still co-operate with Europe, even outside of the European Union. If you want to be an ally of America, you can be but only if you’re prepared to put chips on the table when the going is tough.
“Britain can play a role in respect of China and its relations with the West. But it’s got to carve out a space for itself, where it’s prepared both to be an ally of the US where it’s necessary to confront China, but also being prepared to mobilise people, including our European neighbours, where it’s necessary to keep some space for co-operation, never mind competition.”
“This country is – through language, geographic position, history, tradition – an open trading country. So if we shut down globalisation we’ll pay a heavy penalty for that.”