AMID the developing global coronavirus tragedy, surely the calls for the UK’s Brexit transition period to be extended must be becoming uncontroversial?

Both the UK and our European Union neighbours are rightly focused on attempting to minimise deaths from the Covid-19 outbreak.

The daily death tolls make grim reading. Italy has been enduring these awful numbers for weeks, the Spanish death toll has surged, and the situation in many other countries including the UK is increasingly distressing.

Boris Johnson made a big pitch ahead of the December 12 General Election about not extending the transition period, no matter what. After his victory, he moved to pass legislation to this effect.

However, this was before the global Covid-19 pandemic.

In this column a fortnight ago, it was argued that extending the transition period beyond the end of this year should be a simple decision for Mr Johnson amid the coronavirus crisis.

It was observed that continued single-market membership can provide an important cushion amid this crisis. And it was noted that one thing that no one needs, Remain and Leave voters alike, is another economic shock created by a no-deal Brexit coming hard on the heels of the damage arising from Covid-19. While this viewpoint attracted significant support in terms of comments on, it was not universally popular.

It seems that much more than two weeks have passed since these observations were made.

The pace at which the coronavirus pandemic has developed will surely have seemed overwhelming to many, even though what was happening in Italy a fortnight ago would have given some idea of where things were headed.

The UK is now in lockdown, as are the likes of France, Spain, and Italy.

Normal life as we know it has pretty much ground to a halt. Attention is focused, and rightly so, on saving lives amid the coronavirus crisis.

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Health workers around the globe are battling to minimise the death toll.

The pandemic is also occupying individuals, governments, businesses of all sizes, and other organisations.

In the last two weeks in the UK, the Government has announced huge measures to protect people’s incomes, with the cost of these moves projected by experts to run to tens of billions of pounds.

The hope is that these measures, which have eclipsed Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s March 11 Budget package, will enable employers to retain staff.

And, last Thursday, the Chancellor unveiled major measures to support the incomes of self-employed people. This had been viewed as a big outstanding gap, albeit the measures up to that point were for good reason much welcomed.

The move to help the self-employed, and of course the previously announced huge measures to assist banks in supporting businesses and to protect employees’ incomes, appeared to demonstrate a willingness on the part of the UK Government to listen and adapt to changing circumstances and crucially address people’s needs.

These are certainly not qualities many people would necessarily associate with the Conservatives since they came to power in 2010, or for that matter at times in the past, notably during the Thatcher era. Anyone who disagrees with this assertion should take a look at the Tory track record on welfare.

However, it has been good to see swift and massive measures aimed at trying to mitigate the economic damage arising from the human tragedy that is the coronavirus, notwithstanding some continuing matters of very valid debate such as the level of statutory sick pay.

What the Tories’ new-found adaptability in the face of the coronavirus pandemic has not yet extended to, unfortunately, is Brexit.

There have been further well-made and eminently sensible appeals in recent days for the UK to seek an extension of the transition period from the EU. It would seem almost certain, under the circumstances, that this would be granted. This transition period has ensured that things have largely remained the same as they were for the UK when it was a member of the EU, ahead of its technical Brexit on January 31.

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This has been most welcome, given the Theresa May government’s own forecasts showed significant economic damage on every Brexit scenario, with the worst impact from a no-deal departure.

The centre-right European People’s Party on Monday called for the UK Government to extend the transition period. The EPP unites the parties of a raft of EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Christophe Hansen of the EPP, an MEP from Luxembourg who is on the European Parliament’s international trade committee, said: “Under these extraordinary circumstances, I cannot see how the UK Government would choose to expose itself to the double whammy of the coronavirus and the exit from the EU single market, which will inevitably add to the disruption, deal or no deal.”

He added: “I can only hope common sense and substance will prevail over ideology. An extension of the transition period is the only responsible thing to do.”

During the weekend, the SNP urged the UK Government to “hit pause” and seek an extension of the transition period.

Philippa Whitford, the SNP’s Brexit spokeswoman at Westminster, said: “Continuing talks and hurtling towards the transition period deadline would be irresponsible and an act of economic and social self-harm. It is now vital the UK Government hits pause on all Brexit negotiations and immediately seeks an extension to the transition period to remove the uncertainty and instability.”

Meanwhile, a poll of 2,022 people across the UK, conducted between March 20 and 23 by Focaldata for Best for Britain and Hope not Hate, has shown 64% want the Conservative Government to request an extension to the transition period to enable it to focus on the coronavirus pandemic. Only 36% said the transition period must end on December 31 as planned, “whether a deal has been fixed or not”.

However, from a UK Government perspective, in spite of reports that civil servants have understandably been redeployed from Brexit to the coronavirus crisis, what we seem to have been getting is talk about how the negotiations regarding the post-transition-period arrangements with the EU just need to change in nature. We read about using video-conferencing and having more ongoing talks rather than big set-piece events.

Obviously, face-to-face talks and summits are out of the question amid the coronavirus crisis. However, it is not just a matter of changing how the talks are conducted, in the way that people working from home have been adapting their working practices.

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Much is at stake in the talks between the UK and EU on the actual post-Brexit future, for the economy, for people’s living standards, and for businesses which have had to divert their attention from Brexit-related issues to the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Johnson has tested positive for coronavirus, as has EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. And crucially leaders throughout Europe as well as globally, including Mr Johnson, have been rightly focused on tackling the coronavirus pandemic. And this will surely remain the case for the foreseeable future.

Mr Johnson, before the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, made it very plain that he would leave without a deal if no agreement were reached before the end of the transition period.

However, things are very different now.

Previously, to be sure, the timetable looked very challenging. History suggested that it would be very unlikely that the UK Government could secure the comprehensive free-trade agreement it has said it wants with the EU by the year-end.

And the coronavirus crisis has created a far, far more difficult environment.

The Freight Transport Association, which represents the UK logistics industry, said last week it was “petitioning Government urgently to seek an extension to the current transition period for leaving the European Union”. The logistics sector is tackling huge challenges in keeping the country supplied with the goods it needs to function amid the coronavirus outbreak.

FTA policy director Elizabeth de Jong said: “This is not about the relative merits of Brexit, or any trading arrangements which our industry will need to adopt. This is purely and simply so the businesses tasked with keeping the UK’s supply chain intact can concentrate on the serious issues which the Covid-19 pandemic is placing on the industry.”

Combined UK services and manufacturing output has plummeted this month at a faster pace than at any time during the 2008/09 global financial crisis and recession, a survey published last week by the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply showed.

In a Scottish context, the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute has observed that the coronavirus pandemic had already triggered a “sharp economic downturn”. And it has warned that economic recovery could take months, if not years, giving its view that hopes for a v-shaped recession (with a swift and sharp bounce-back) might be “overly optimistic”.

This does not seem like the time at all for Brexit negotiations, and there does not look to be much capacity on either side to conduct these in any case.

It is surely time to stop the Brexit transition clock ticking. It is the last thing anyone needs right now amid the coronavirus pandemic. And, given the way things have changed in recent weeks, you would imagine that many Brexiters, probably with the exception of the most ideological Leavers but hopefully not, might see the sense in hitting the pause button and extending the transition period.