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Huawei or the highway

14 July 2020

By Tim Le Couilliard, Newgate Public Affairs

The government has made two front-page policy decisions in two days. This morning’s papers led with the government’s new directive requiring face coverings in shops and supermarkets from 24th July. Tomorrow’s front pages, bar any other dramatic announcement, will splash the news that Huawei is to be removed from the UK’s 5G network by 2027 and that there is to be no new telecommunications infrastructure bought from the Chinese company after 31st December. 

Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, announced that the decision had been taken in the interest of “our national security and our economy,” following an escalation in tension between China and the UK in recent months. The Hong Kong National Security Law caused a major deterioration in the Sino-British relationship. It has not always been so; during David Cameron’s premiership, the Prime Minister “went to the pub” with Chinese Prime Minister, Xi Jinping, and heralded a “Golden Era” of bilateral relations. In the coming months however, the UK’s lead aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, is set to be sent to the Far East for its maiden voyage. Recently the UK also took the unprecedented step of offering three million BNO Hong Kong passport holders a path to full British citizenship. The Sino-British relationship has deteriorated so far that last week the Chinese Ambassador, Liu Xiaoming, said the UK would “bear the consequences” should Huawei be excluded from the British 5G network. Today it was Defence Select Committee Chair, Tobias Ellwood, who warned bluntly: “we should expect repercussions from China,” but that it is right “we stand up” to China. 

Dowden was keen to stress that the government continues to seek to work closely with China for “mutual benefit”, and that this decision allows the UK to work closer with allies; “what we want is a modern and mature relationship with China based on mutual respect”. 

It is worth remembering that the government is also conducting an integrated foreign policy review at present, with relations with China expected to be high on the list. The National Security and Investment Bill is also expected to be presented to Parliament soon, will include feature restrictions on the takeover of British companies by Chinese bodies. 

In other news announced late last night, face coverings will become mandatory in shops and supermarkets. Today in the House of Commons, Health Secretary Matt Hancock made the official statement that the government “wants to give people more confidence to shop safely and enhance protections for those who work in shops”. While he expects the public “to comply with the rules”, the police now have formal enforcement powers and can fine those not covered up, up to £100. 

The measure, which over the weekend was described as “basic good manners” by Michael Gove, was not always expected to be made mandatory - the advice to wear a mask has featured as part of the government’s rhetoric since mid-May. Today Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth welcomed the measure saying, “after days of ministerial muddle, we finally have a decision”.  For weeks now we have seen more and more senior politicians wearing face coverings, including the Prime Minister. Gove today, however, was snapped in Pret NOT wearing a mask – bad manners! The rule only comes into effect from 24th July after all (to allow for arrangements to be made). It, of course, remains law to wear a face covering on public transport. 

Last week’s Summer Economic Update featured a number of measures to try and get Britain spending again, with certain measures for restaurants and the hospitality sector. Whilst these sectors are not yet to require facemasks (but not ruled out in the future by Hancock when pressed), some believe that the wearing of facemasks will have the effect of less public spending. Senior backbench Tory Sir Desmond Swayne strongly stated that “nothing would make me less likely to go shopping than the thought of having to mask up”, describing the rule as a “monstrous imposition”. Alternatively, the measure could encourage those who were previously scared of catching coronavirus to get out and about and spending. 

This comes as new GDP figures were published today showing that GDP only rose by 1.8% during May (following a slump of 25% over the preceding three months). The figures back date to before last week’s support package was announced, but Chancellor Rishi Sunak still notes that the figures “underline the scale of the challenge we face”. Now we must “face” them with a mask.