Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 20 April 2020

Britons want China to face inquiry over coronavirus outbreak

Medical assistants pose after returning to Zhejiang province from Wuhan, where they had been fighting coronavirus
Medical assistants pose after returning to Zhejiang province from Wuhan, where they had been fighting coronavirus
More than 80 per cent of Britons want Boris Johnson to push for an international inquiry into China’s handling of the initial coronavirus outbreak, according to a poll.
The survey also revealed that 71 per cent of the public wanted ministers to sue the Chinese government for damages if it became evident that President Xi’s administration had breached international law in its response to the coronavirus.
The poll, commissioned last week by the Henry Jackson Society, a British neoconservative foreign affairs think tank, showed that 74 per cent of the UK public thought that China was to blame for allowing Covid-19 to spread.
Last week Downing Street for the first time explicitly named China as the source of the virus. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, warned that the UK could not maintain “business as usual” with China. “We will have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn’t have been stopped earlier,” he said.
Hawkish Conservative MPs are calling for Britain to conduct a strategic reset of relations with China. A growing number want Downing Street to review its approval for the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to supply the UK’s 5G infrastructure, amid security concerns. The company denies that it poses a risk.
The issue appears to have gained traction with the public as the poll found that 40 per cent of Britons opposed Huawei installing its kit. Only 27 per cent were in favour, while 26 per cent said they neither supported nor opposed it.
The United Nations is facing calls to hold an inquiry into how the virus began in the Chinese city of Wuhan and how it spread so fast.
President Trump said at the weekend that the US was conducting its own investigations and that China should face consequences if it were found to be “knowingly responsible” for the outbreak. Several Republicans have introduced a bill that could pave the way for Americans to sue China for damages.
A class action against China involving claimants from 40 countries, including Britain and the US, has been filed in Florida. The lawsuit, seeking damages worth trillions of dollars, accuses China of negligence over its response to the transmission of the disease.
The Henry Jackson Society said that the British government could be in line for damages worth £350 billion from China if it pursued coronavirus compensation via legal action. A report, published this month by the society, alleged China had directly transgressed international healthcare treaty responsibilities.
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Alan Mendoza, executive director of the society, said yesterday that the survey showed the British public “clearly agree that seeking justice over China’s handling of the crisis should be a priority”.
He added: “It’s now up to the government to act on its promise this week that there will not be ‘business as usual’ with China post-pandemic, and that it’s listening to the British people’s views about who is to blame.”
Chinese officials have been accused of covering up information about the pattern of transmission and local death tolls in the initial phase of the outbreak, which may have hampered early efforts to understand the disease.
The survey, conducted by Survation from April 15 to 16, polled 1,001 people.

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