Brexit talks are to switch to a virtual format after a member of the EU negotiating team became infected with Covid-19, with time running short for the two sides to finalise an agreement.
Michel Barnier announced on Thursday that one of his negotiators had “tested positive for Covid-19” and that high-level talks would be suspended “for a short period”. Negotiating teams “will continue their work in full respect of guidelines”, he said.
A UK spokesperson later confirmed that the UK and EU teams “have agreed to continue to negotiate remotely for the time being”.
“The talks will resume in person when it is judged safe to do so,” the spokesperson said. “The health and welfare of our staff are our priority.”
People involved in the talks said that everyone exposed to the EU negotiator who has tested positive was being checked, and Belgium’s self-isolation rules were being fully applied. Following this assessment, no UK officials have been required to go into self-isolation.
The talks are taking place in 11 different workstreams covering everything from energy-market co-ordination to fishing rights. The EU and UK negotiating teams are each made up of about 100 people, although some participate in meetings remotely.
Following the announcement, Mr Barnier pulled out of a planned debrief of national ambassadors scheduled for Friday, and will be replaced by one of his senior staff.
A debriefing of members of the European Parliament, also planned for Friday, has been cancelled.
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 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 including annexes, 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 were no deal by the end of next week.
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. Both sides had already planned for negotiations to shift back to London next week, and it is now expected that the next physical talks will take place there when that becomes possible.
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’s Foreign Office currently advises against “all but essential travel” to Belgium.
“The negotiations have been conducted throughout in a way that is consistent with applicable social distancing laws and guidance,” the UK spokesperson said.