A Cabinet minister has rejected calls for the Brexit transition period to be extended due to the coronavirus crisis and ongoing uncertainty about trade talks with the European Union.
The current arrangements expire at the end of the month, with the UK leaving the single market and customs union.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said extending the arrangements beyond December 31 would “add fuel to the fire” by adding extra uncertainty.
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said it would be “unconscionable” to add a no-deal exit from the EU’s trading arrangements to the current difficulties caused by the mutant coronavirus strain.
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Trade has already been disrupted after France banned hauliers travelling from the UK due to fears over the spread of the more infectious strain of coronavirus.
But Mr Shapps said firms already knew that change was coming after December 31 and had been told to plan for it.
He told BBC Breakfast: “I think the one thing which could actually add fuel to the fire would be ending something that everyone’s known is ending for a very long time, which is the end of the transition period which completes on December 31, so absolutely not, no.
“The important thing is that businesses continue to prepare, that individuals are prepared.”
It’s now imperative that PM seeks an agreement to extend the Brexit transition period. The new Covid strain – & the various implications of it – means we face a profoundly serious situation, & it demands our 100% attention. It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 20, 2020
Mr Shapps said that measures such as the use of the disused Manston airfield as a lorry park, which had been planned as a post-Brexit contingency, were now being used as a result of the coronavirus disruption.
Talks on a post-Brexit trade deal are expected to continue this week.
Lead negotiators Michel Barnier and Lord Frost met in Brussels on Sunday but a UK Government source said the discussions had been “difficult”.
The source said “significant differences” remained over the key issues of fisheries and the so-called “level playing field rules” on state aid for business.
The European Parliament had said the talks needed to be concluded by Sunday evening if it was to ratify any deal before the current Brexit transition ends on December 31.
However, if there was to be a deal, under EU rules it could be provisionally signed off by leaders of the 27-member bloc with ratification delayed until 2021.
In this crucial moment for the 🇪🇺🇬🇧 negotiations, we continue to work hard with @DavidGHFrost and his team.
The EU remains committed to a fair, reciprocal & balanced agreement. We respect the sovereignty of the UK. And we expect the same. (1/2)
— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) December 20, 2020
Earlier, Mr Barnier warned that Britain must be prepared to respect the EU’s sovereignty if the talks were to succeed.
He said the EU remained committed to achieving “a fair, reciprocal and balanced agreement” but said both sides needed to be able to act when their interests were at stake.
The British side has accused the EU of making “unreasonable demands” and of failing to respect UK sovereignty over fishing rights and fair competition rules.
If there is no deal by December 31, the UK will leave the single market and customs union and begin trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms – with the imposition of tariffs potentially leading to higher prices in shops.
Ms Sturgeon said Prime Minister Boris Johnson should try to get an extension to the Brexit transition period because of the discovery of a faster-spreading coronavirus strain that has caused European countries to halt flights and ferry crossings from the UK.
She tweeted: “It’s now imperative that PM seeks an agreement to extend the Brexit transition period.
“The new Covid strain – & the various implications of it – means we face a profoundly serious situation, & it demands our 100% attention.
“It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit.”
I’m urging the Government to officially seek an extension to the Brexit transition period.
Securing our key supply chains and fighting the coronavirus pandemic requires the full and undivided efforts of ministers more than ever before.
My full statement: pic.twitter.com/JNO1VpIWt1
— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) December 21, 2020
Her view was echoed by London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan.
He said: “Securing our key supply chains and fighting the coronavirus pandemic requires the full and undivided efforts of ministers more than ever before.
“Risking the chaos and uncertainty of a no-deal Brexit was reckless even before the latest surge in Covid cases and the worrying news about this latest strain.
“With the virus spreading rapidly and our hospitals increasingly stretched, the only thing the country should be concentrating on is fighting the virus.”
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