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'Imaginative exercise' of no-deal Brexit planning stood down

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Councils are being instructed by government to hold fire on contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit, in light the further extension of the Article 50 period to October 31.

A letter sent to local authority public health chiefs by the Department of Health & Social Care instructing them to stop no-deal provisions being enacted today has been criticised as “conceited” by one of its recipients.

Councils had been assigned to do “reporting and monitoring intelligence-gathering exercises” with respect to public health issues as part of preparations for a no-deal Brexit, according to one source. But he described these tasks as “an imaginative exercise - more cynicism verging on hilarity”, because no-deal Brexit never materialised.

The letter leaked to LGC is dated April 11, and is signed by Clara Swinson, director-general, global and public health and senior responsible officer for EU Exit, and Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England.

It told recipients to ”immediately make all necessary changes to your plans to stop no deal provisions being enacted on 12 April”, but it also went on to explain that until a Brexit deal is agreed and ratified, there is still a risk of a no deal exit at the end of the extension period on 31 October.

“We will need to consider how best to prepare for this scenario and the impact on no deal preparations…I am extremely grateful for your excellent engagement over the last few months,” the letter said.

Upon being asked to confirm the letter’s validity, a DHSC spokesperson said: “Leaving the EU with a deal remains the government’s priority. We are considering the impact on our EU Exit preparations and are working closely with our stakeholders to review our position.”

One of the letter’s recipients expressed his sense of irritation at the letter’s contents. “I’m not sure what annoys me most - the tone of this letter, the idea they can instruct local authorities to stand down, or the conceit that they actually thought we needed to be told this and hadn’t already started taking a pragmatic approach,” he said.

Another source told LGC that many councils have been undertaking weekly intelligence-gathering in order to provide assurances to MHCLG that preparations were in place to manage any potential risks to public service delivery, particularly in the social care sector.

“We were asked to look for any evidence that we will have problems in social care delivery due to eastern European staff returning to their home countries, because a lot of social care is undertaken by eastern European workers,” he explained. “Also any evidence of drugs scarcity. A lot of this work was intelligence-based, to get local systems to report problems arising. 

“But what was clear was that local authorities were given responsibility very late in the day to report on these perceived or imagined problems, and that frustrated a lot of people.

“There was a feeling that some of the assurances being sought from local authorities were exercises in blame passing,” the source said. 

In Dover, no-deal Brexit contingency plans for ‘Operation Brock’, which would have allowed lorries travelling to Europe to be held on the coastbound carriageway of the M20, were stood down yesterday, to the relief of Keith Morris (Con), leader of Dover DC who described the move as “a step in the right direction”.

“Dover District Council had always been planning for the worst and hoping for the best, and this decision means we can minimise disruption and keep Dover open for business,” he said.

But although councils are no longer preoccupied with no deal Brexit planning, they are now lumbered with having to plan for EU elections at short notice. One source told LGC this is causing some chief executives more “panic and concern” than the no deal Brexit planning did.

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