IT must surely have seemed likely, even to those inured to this Conservative Government’s hidebound attitudes when it comes to Brexit, that there would have been a recognition by now that extending the transition period is crucial.

The focus must remain on minimising the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic. In recent weeks, the Covid-19 tragedy has intensified dramatically and the daily death tolls in the UK and many other countries are distressing.

Countries around the world will have to contemplate in coming weeks and months how to mitigate the impact on people’s living standards of the economic crisis that has come with the pandemic, as lockdowns have been implemented in an attempt to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

When the worst of the crisis has passed, stability will be key to economic recovery.

There will be many challenges in this regard. There are great uncertainties as to how things will develop, and these look unlikely to go away any time soon.

All that households, business leaders, and politicians can do is try to make the best of what is within their control. Amid this crisis, much is outwith the control of individuals, from ordinary citizens to leaders of countries.

READ MORE: Ian McConnell: Surely delaying single-market exit can no longer be divisive, as coronavirus pandemic overshadows Brexit?

Against this backdrop, the sensible thing for people to do is make astute decisions in terms of what is under their control, while retaining an awareness of what is not.

The UK is now little more than eight months away from exiting the European single market, with the Conservative Government continuing to refuse to countenance an extension to the transition period that is currently insulating the country from the big impacts of Brexit. Such insulation may pale into insignificance relative to the economic impact of the human tragedy that is the coronavirus pandemic, but it is nevertheless very important.

The coronavirus crisis has made ordinary life in the UK, and in many other countries, seem like something of a distant memory.

National Health Service staff and other key workers have been focused night and day on the effort to save lives.

Amid the maelstrom, many people, Remainers and Leave voters alike, may not realise that the UK Government is still actively pursuing its plans to exit the European single market by the year-end, with or without a deal.

Yet that is what is happening. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, a former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, made no bones about the Government’s approach as he took to Twitter last week.

Mr Frost declared on the social-media platform: “As we prepare for the next Rounds of negotiations, I want to reiterate the Government’s position on the transition period created following our withdrawal from the EU. Transition ends on 31 December this year. We will not ask to extend it. If the EU asks we will say no.”

READ MORE: Ian McConnell: What room for hope amid the Covid-19 economic wreckage?

At a time when millions of people are being hugely flexible in the efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, and the Conservative Government has been reacting quickly to try to minimise the economic impact of Covid-19, the categoric nature of Mr Frost’s statement really stood out. Boxing oneself into a corner on Brexit has been something the Conservative Government seems to have been keen and at times almost impatient to do in recent years. However, the tone of Mr Frost’s comments seems out of kilter with the daily realities that most people are facing.

Mr Frost also declared: “Extending would simply prolong negotiations, create even more uncertainty, leave us liable to pay more to the EU in future, and keep us bound by evolving EU laws at a time when we need to control our own affairs. In short, it is not in the UK’s interest to extend.”

A spokesman for Mr Johnson meanwhile underlined the UK Government Brexit stance set out by Mr Frost.

And, on Monday, Mr Frost tweeted that it was “very good to begin Round 2 of negotiations today” with European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and his EU colleagues.

Mr Frost also talked about looking to make “good progress towards an agreement based on friendly cooperation between sovereign equals”.

It seems worth observing that there still appears to have been no reason to consider that the UK was not a “sovereign equal” to EU countries before Brexit. The notion that Brexit has somehow made the UK a more sovereign state remains truly baffling.

The Scottish Government has this week urged Mr Johnson to seek the maximum two-year extension to the transition period.

Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Europe, Mike Russell, said: “The benefits of coordinated European action have never been clearer.”

This seems like a statement that surely even the most ardent Brexiters could not disagree with.

Mr Russell warned against a “reckless decision to pursue a hard Brexit”.

This appears to be a most sensible and timely warning.

Mr Russell added: “An extended transition will keep the UK as close as possible to the EU and provide an opportunity to re-think the future relationship.”

There is surely no arguing with the sense of that either.

Many things will have to be assessed when the worst of the awful coronavirus crisis eventually passes. This is a time for keeping options open, not shutting down close relationships with our friends and neighbours.

It is certainly not a time for adding further chaos and making a grim situation even worse.

READ MORE: Ian McConnell: Poorest must not pay the price again after coronavirus crisis

The timescale for securing the comprehensive free-trade agreement with the EU that the Conservative Government claims it wants looked wildly ambitious even before the coronavirus crisis began. Of course, it may be important to bear in mind in this context that many Brexiters have for many years now been signalling that they are absolutely prepared to leave the single market without a deal. For some, this may be posturing. However, for many it looks like pure ideology and these people have seemed truly enamoured with the notion of a no-deal.

Even an exit scenario with a free-trade deal will cost the UK economy dear – the forecasts produced by the Theresa May government have told us so. The Tories’ desired end to free movement of people between the UK and other EU countries and planned immigration clampdown will prove a major drag on UK economic output and living standards over years and decades. The no-deal impact on the economy, as shown by the May government forecasts, is much greater still.

This would all be bad enough at the best of times. However, in the currently grim situation and its difficult aftermath, this is absolutely the last thing the economy, weighed down by years of austerity and Brexit uncertainty and now hammered by the coronavirus crisis, needs.

Of course, the chances of a no-deal departure from the single market look to have increased dramatically as talks between the UK and EU have been thrown into disarray by the Covid-19 pandemic.

We keep hearing from the UK side in the talks over post-Brexit arrangements about exchanges of legal texts, and the opportunity to replace face-to-face meetings with video-conferencing. But the whole thing looks to be an entirely unnecessary distraction at the current time for the UK Government and our EU neighbours. It seems astonishing that it has even gone on this long.

This is not to say that Brexit negotiating teams should necessarily be furloughed. The talents of many of these people could be well used elsewhere at the moment, in terms of tackling the coronavirus crisis and plotting the economic future. And it would surely be easier for the future cooperation Mr Frost is talking about to be conducted with the UK remaining within the single market. Cooperation is certainly crucial right now, amid this crisis.

The economic outlook has in many ways become even more difficult to predict as the weeks have passed.

It remains extremely difficult to form a view of when things will get back to some kind of normality.

What is increasingly clear is that the scale of the challenges and uncertainties ahead are huge. These challenges and uncertainties will also be protracted.

This is a time to remove as much uncertainty as possible. The UK’s impending exit from the single market is a major uncertainty facing millions of households and many thousands of businesses, even as the focus rightly remains on fighting coronavirus and the wellbeing of family and friends.

Mr Johnson’s spokesman talked last week about the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge not to extend the transition period, noting this had since been “enshrined in primary legislation”. This manifesto pledge looked unwise at the time, in terms of limiting options. We are now in a very different place, and this hidebound determination to exit the single market now appears utterly staggering.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman claimed that extending the transition period would “prolong business uncertainty”.

This is a truly remarkable point. The UK looks to many people to be hurtling towards a no-deal Brexit, which would create massive uncertainties for households and businesses that already have far too many problems on their plates.

Parking the UK’s planned exit from the European single market for two years and thus taking away the huge uncertainties around this for now would seem, at this juncture, to be a very easy thing to do. And it really should be non-contentious. No-one needs one economic shock on top of another. That is surely a simple truth – and one that is easy to grasp.

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