In a time of national crisis, Brexit can wait – but woe betide the Remainers who gloat about it

An 11-month timeframe for agreeing a complex, comprehensive trade deal was already thought by many experts to be inconceivable. The onset of this coronavirus has now made it absolutely impossible

Gove reveals Brexit trade talks likely to be shelved

Over the next weeks, and probably months, the UK will be battling the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 thus far claimed 16,000 lives worldwide. Boris Johnson likens the UK’s approach to fighting a war, and so he should. There are more than 6,500 confirmed cases in the UK and that number is rising rapidly.

After avoiding public appearances for several days as the outbreak began to take off, Johnson has rightly agreed to daily briefings so the public can be informed on progress. Days after his first Budget speech, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a £350bn package of measures to support businesses and the wider economy.

This wartime-like approach is needed given the rising death toll, especially in Italy, and the very real fears of the British people that we might be next. This battle against Covid-19 is a war the government must win, so it must prioritise the health and safety of all citizens, directing all its efforts to their protection. It is increasingly clear the pandemic will be with us for several months, and its after effects for far longer.

Given the gravity of the situation, the government must immediately request an extension to the current Brexit transition period for at least six months — and avoid fighting a war on two fronts.

Many EU countries are in lockdown. Brexit trade talks are on ice. An 11-month timeframe for agreeing a complex, comprehensive trade deal was already thought by many experts to be inconceivable. The onset of this coronavirus has now made it absolutely impossible. There will be no progress of any kind.

Politics is about priorities; forging new trade deals is not top of the list for any country at the present time – including our own.

The government has repeatedly said that it wants a comprehensive trade deal rather than a no-deal Brexit. If that is true, postponing talks and prolonging the transition period is the most sensible way to achieve the government’s ultimate goal at a time of national emergency. Choosing to stick to an arbitrary date for ending the transition in December on principle makes no sense given the fast moving circumstances.

This is not the time to choose to split the focus of all government departments into tackling two major issues at once when we simply do not need to do so. Postponing an end to transitioning out of the EU would allow a total focus on the biggest threat to public health in a century. This should not in any way be undermined by other political aims.

And in doing the right thing and asking for an extension, Brexit’s opponents should not gloat but welcome such a decision in the national interest. This is a time where we most need to rally together.

Stopping the ‘get Brexit done’ talks is what any wartime-like government should do. To leave hanging our full exit from EU without taking any account of the current crisis’s profound effects is irresponsible.

The sooner the government makes clear its desire to let Brexit matters wait until after ensuring the public’s health and safety is protected to the fullest extent, the better. Anything less gets both the government’s priorities and its principles wrong.

Thom Brooks is professor of law and government at Durham University and the author of ‘Becoming British’

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