March 18, 2020 - 7:00am

Last year, British politics was consumed by Brexit. In 2020, it all seems rather quaint.

Remember the doomsday predictions of what a no-deal Brexit would mean? Not even the worst of them were as bad as what coronavirus is currently doing to us.

I expect that somebody somewhere on Twitter will have claimed that Brexit would turn us into Europe’s North Korea — a pariah state sealed-off from the rest of the world. But no serious Remainer went that far. Disruption to trade? Most certainly. Chaos at the channel ports? Quite possibly. Empty shelves in the supermarkets? Could happen. But total isolation? Well, that was just too implausible.

But imagine if we had been cut-off from the rest of the world — no one in, no one out. Again, it’s not that anyone actually wanted this, not even the battiest Brexiteer. But let’s suppose that’s what we’d done many weeks ago in response to the crisis in China. Let’s assume that all returning travellers had been tested and quarantined. The ports and airports would have shutdown — the Channel Tunnel too. The armed forces would have been deployed to our borders, enforcing their complete closure.

And so, in this scenario, the virus never gets established on British soil. People don’t get sick. The NHS isn’t overwhelmed. Obviously, international trade is massively disrupted. Supply chains are broken and the economy suffers. There are worries about food shortages. The Government shifts to wartime economic management and plans for rationing are drawn up.

Unthinkable stuff, but worse than what we’re going through now — and what we’re about to go through? I doubt it. An economy isolated from the world is in trouble; an economy isolated from itself all the more so.

Was a self-imposed blockade ever an option? If it were, it’s far too late to try it now (though across the world borders are being closed anyway).

And yet a question remains. At some point there will be other pandemics, perhaps a resurgence of this one. So should we be prepared for a policy of national self-isolation? Or, to put it another way, if it had been a practical option at the start of the year would you have taken it?

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.