DURING a tumultuous weekend dominated by stark warnings from Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson among others on a new strain of Covid-19 which can spread much more rapidly, the UK Government’s hell-bent rush to leave the European single market appeared ever more bizarre.

And ever more irresponsible, and unfathomable. The Prime Minister appearing to laugh on Monday when asked a question about whether or not there would be a no-deal Brexit seemed at the same time utterly incongruous and entirely expected, given this Government’s seeming indifference on this front.

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As several mainland European countries, including France and Germany, have moved in recent days to close their borders temporarily to people and traffic from the UK because of the new coronavirus strain, Britain has continued to try to negotiate a narrow future trade deal with the European Union. There is not long to go on this front before the UK’s bizarrely self-imposed deadline of December 31.

At the best of times, this eleventh-hour Brexit drama is entirely unacceptable from the perspective of households and businesses unable to plan for what the situation will be after the year-end. The huge Government advertising campaign, imploring businesses to prepare for leaving the European single market, sounds increasingly like so much satire. In the meantime, with the closure of the French border to accompanied freight from the UK and given Britain’s impending departure from the single market was already causing congestion at UK ports, there is much talk of food shortages.

Households and businesses could be forgiven for thinking they were like the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s The Castle in what have been futile efforts to understand what the UK governing authorities are going to deliver on the post-Brexit relationship. They have, for so long, been unable to get anywhere near obtaining anything like adequate information about what is going on in time to make plans. In this case, this is because the UK Government does not know itself, in spite of a promise more than a year ago from Mr Johnson, ahead of his victory in last December’s general election, of an “oven-ready” Brexit deal.

On Sunday night, Scotland’s First Minister made the obvious, common-sense point on what should happen on Brexit. It is a point which, while surely obvious to people looking at Brexit without the red, white and blue spectacles of British nationalism worn by many Leavers, seems not to be so to the UK Cabinet. Of course, the Cabinet has been packed with Brexiters, following Mr Johnson’s single-issue election victory last December.

Ms Sturgeon tweeted: “It’s now imperative that PM seeks an agreement to extend the Brexit transition period. The new Covid strain – & the various implications of it – means we face a profoundly serious situation, & it demands our 100% attention. It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit.”

The UK Government has had plenty of opportunity since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic to extend the transition period, which has enabled the country to stay in the single market since its technical Brexit on January 31. The Johnson administration, with its Brexit blinkers on, has gone out of its way to make a point to our long-suffering EU neighbours that it would not do so under any circumstances.

Sadly, this stubbornness has applied even through an awful global pandemic. And Mr Johnson has repeated this obstinate stance this week, even as the UK struggles with escalating Covid-19 woe.

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The EU has emphasised repeatedly that it has been having to work on the timescale imposed by the UK in the talks on the post-Brexit relationship, and that it would have been willing to extend the transition period amid the coronavirus pandemic.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier made this point again last week.

He pointed out that it was the UK which had “decided” the “deadline”, reiterating the EU would have been willing to extend the transition period into next year so talks could continue.

Mr Barnier told the European Parliament: “If they should leave with an agreement or without, it is nevertheless the Brits that decided on that deadline.”

The negotiations are proving utterly tortuous as the Johnson Government bangs on about the importance of sovereignty. This sovereignty has, of course, never been in question as the UK has reaped the rich economic rewards over years and decades from the truly frictionless trade and free movement of people afforded by being part of the world’s biggest free trade bloc.

As the clock has ticked down, and the Brexit situation has gone from terrible to even worse over recent weeks and months, Mr Johnson has continued to trot out his stock phrase that the UK will “prosper mightily” with or without a deal, parroting this again on Monday.

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It does not matter to Mr Johnson, it seems, that this soundbite is evidently not backed up by anything of substance, or that the forecasts drawn up by the Theresa May government back in 2018 on the effect of Brexit show the opposite to be the case.

What the May government forecasts show is that Brexit would on the basis of an average free trade deal with the EU result in UK GDP in 15 years’ time being 4.9% or 6.7% lower than if the country had remained a member of the powerful bloc, on respective assumptions of no change to migration arrangements or zero net inflow of workers from European Economic Area countries. Of course, the Tories are clamping down on immigration with their ideological Brexit. The respective no-deal exit impacts on UK GDP on a 15-year view would be 7.7% or 9.3% under the no change to migration arrangements and zero net inflow scenarios.

The much-vaunted free trade deal the Conservative Government wants to do with the US would, according to the Johnson administration’s own forecasts, add 0.16% at most to UK GDP on a 15-year horizon.

It really is difficult to know what on earth is the basis for Mr Johnson’s reasoning that the UK will “prosper mightily” with or without a deal. It does not matter the degree to which the arch-Brexiters at large believe Blighty is “mighty” in this context given they are fuelled by British nationalist fervour rather than reasoned economic analysis.

Crucially, saying something is the case does not make it so.

Amid the elevated pandemic woe, and the continuing shambles of Brexit as December 31 looms, it was hardly surprising to see the pound sharply lower on Monday morning.

UK ports were already under severe pressure amid understandable stockpiling by many companies ahead of the December 31 end-date for the transition period. This stockpiling makes perfect sense, given we do not know what the future trading arrangements with the EU will be from the end of this year. Whether it is raw materials, other crucial supply-chain elements, or finished goods to sell to customers, it has made sense amid the Johnson Brexit chaos for companies to order them in now.

The temporary closure of the French border to accompanied freight from the UK meant the situation at Dover had deteriorated very significantly by Monday.

James O’Brien, author of How Not To Be Wrong: The Art Of Changing Your Mind and presenter on radio station LBC, tweeted on Monday morning amid the developing Covid situation and continuing Brexit crisis: “Well, at least we’ve spent the last few years carefully nurturing relations with other countries while demonstrating daily how much we value & respect them. This latest mess would be so much worse if we’d sacrificed the lot on the altar of mythical, misunderstood ‘sovereignty’…”

He makes a very good point in terms of the importance of relationships with other countries.

This is a time when being a fully functioning part of the European bloc is more important than ever.

It is also crucial to reflect on the fact that Brexit will still cause huge economic damage to the UK even if the Johnson Government does secure the narrow trade deal it has been trying to negotiate with the EU. You only need to look at the May government’s own forecasts to see the scale of the damage to the UK economy and living standards.

Many people had expected the Brexit talks to go to the wire. However, if anyone had told you back in the spring that the talks were continuing into the Christmas week but only that, you might have been buoyed slightly by the assumption that the transition period must have been extended.

Of course, that is not the case.

The talks are continuing, amid the misery and latest grim developments on the coronavirus front. The UK has missed deadline after deadline to do a deal. And we are now little more than a week from the end of the transition period.

It is a chaotic situation in which the UK Government’s lack of leadership ability has again been exposed. And no one should be laughing about it.