The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator announced the suspension of high-level trade deal talks with the UK on Thursday after a member of his team became infected with Covid-19, putting further pressure on an already tight timeframe to finalise an agreement.
Michel Barnier said officials would continue to work on the text of a trade deal but that he and his UK counterpart, David Frost, had “decided to suspend the negotiations at our level for a short period”.
“One of the negotiators in my team has tested positive for Covid-19,” he tweeted. While high-level talks are suspended, negotiating teams “will continue their work in full respect of guidelines”, he said.
UK negotiators have been holding talks with the EU team in Brussels since Sunday, with hopes rising that a trade deal to cover the UK’s relations with the bloc after the end of the Brexit transition phase on December 31 could be reached in the coming days.
Lord Frost tweeted that he was in “close contact” with Mr Barnier about the situation. “The health of our teams comes first,” he said. “I would like to thank the European Commission for their immediate help and support.”
Talks have been focused on the remaining key sticking points of rights for the EU fishing fleet in British waters, “level playing field” guarantees for business and the question of how to enforce any deal.
The rest of the treaty text, estimated at 1,800 pages, is largely drafted, even if negotiating chapters are not formally closed.
The two sides are seeking to conclude a deal in time for it to be legally checked, translated and ratified by both sides before the end of the transition period. Officials in Brussels have said this would become difficult to complete if there is no deal by the end of next week.
One participant in the negotiations said that some officials now needed to go into self-isolation because of the discovery of the Covid case.
Negotiations have been taking place at one of the EU’s office buildings in the Schuman district of Brussels, a venue that was frequently used for conferences and hearings in pre-coronavirus times.
It is unclear how the development will affect the timetable for the Brexit talks. Officials had mooted the idea of talks reverting to London next week as negotiators strive to get a deal over the line.
The frequent cross-Channel trips in recent weeks by the sizeable EU and UK negotiating teams have been an anomaly during the second wave of Covid-19. The UK Foreign Office currently advises against “all but essential travel” to Belgium.
A UK government spokesperson said: “The commission has informed us that an official in their delegation has tested positive for Covid-19. We are discussing with them the implications for the negotiations.
“We have been, and will continue to, act in line with public health guidelines and to ensure the health and welfare of our teams.”
EU officials said that the situation was still being assessed. One point that is now unclear is whether Mr Barnier will go ahead with plans to brief EU ambassadors on Friday on the state of the talks.