Post-Brexit talks with the European Union will continue next week despite the UK and much of the continent being on a coronavirus-enforced lockdown.
Downing Street has confirmed Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove will co-chair discussions via video conference as the two sides look at implementing what is in the Withdrawal Agreement once the transition period ends, which is due to close on December 31.
Monday’s UK-EU joint committee is separate to the trade talks, which the Guardian reported was considered to be “in the deep freeze” due to Europe’s battle against Covid-19.
Draft legal texts were exchanged on March 18, with the UK proposing a free trade agreement and other mini-deals on aviation safety, air transport and civil nuclear industries as its basis for negotiation, but Government attention has turned to dealing with coronavirus in past weeks rather than Brexit.
Downing Street has continued to insist that the Government will not request to put back the end-of-the-year deadline for a trade deal to be reached.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman, when asked about a possible extension to the transition period, told reporters on Friday: “In terms of the timetable, there is no change from our point of view.”
Sir Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrats’ acting leader, said the Government was “incredibly irresponsible” with its decision to press on with the Brexit talks, despite chief negotiators in Westminster and Brussels respectively having contracted coronavirus.
The first meeting of the joint UK-EU committee is due to take place by video conference on Monday March 30, with Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Mr Gove leading for the UK and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic chairing for Brussels.
The PM’s spokesman said the meeting next week would “oversee the implementation, application and interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement and will seek to resolve any issues that may arise from it”.
“The meeting will happen remotely instead of in-person given the developments of coronavirus, and so we are considering alternative ways to host it, such as conference calls,” said the No 10 spokesman.
“The UK delegation will include the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Paymaster General Penny Mordaunt.”
Confirming the agenda, the Cabinet Office said, following opening remarks from both co-chairs, each side would update on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement before discussing “tasks and responsibilities of the specialised committees”.
Boris Johnson announced on Friday he had tested positive for coronavirus, while Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also been infected with the deadly illness.
The PM’s Europe adviser David Frost is self-isolating having contracted Covid-19, as is his counterpart, chief Brussels negotiator Michel Barnier.
Mr Gove has not been tested for the virus, according to his wife and journalist Sarah Vine.
The former education secretary had been responsible for leading on Britain’s no-deal preparations before the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified in October.