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The UK should extend the Brexit transition period so the Government can focus all of its efforts on fighting the coronavirus, according to Theresa May’s former deputy.
Sir David Lidington said there is not enough “bandwidth” in Whitehall to thrash out a trade deal with Brussels while also dealing with the health emergency.
And he said it was “inevitable” that the UK would have to try to shift the 31 December expiry date.
His comments came just days after Downing Street insisted there was no chance of the transition period – during which the UK continues to follow most EU rules – being extended.
Negotiations between both sides resumed via videolink this week this week, with two more rounds scheduled for May and June.
Speaking to Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Sir David said: “Covid-19 makes renewal [of the transition period] inevitable.”
He added: “There is not enough bandwidth to pay attention to Brexit in Whitehall, the European Commission and the major capitals.”
His comments come after his former Cabinet colleague, ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond, said it would be “unwise” for the Government to push for divergence from the EU this year
Instead, Mr Hammond called on the two sides to strike an “interim trade arrangement” while the coronavirus crisis continues.
Sir David’s intervention has already been dismissed by some Brexiteers.
Mark Francois, who chairs the European Research Group of Brexiteer Tory MPs, told Sky News a move to extend the transition period would be “extremely costly to the British taxpayer”
He added: “I am confident we will have a free trade agreement by year end, so no extension is necessary.”
And fellow backbencher Andrew Rosindell said: “I don’t think this is the right time for Sir David to be making comments like this. I think it’s the worst possible idea that at this stage we delay the end of the transition period.
“He is out ot step with most Conservatives on this.”
A poll published this week by campaign groups HOPE not Hate and Best for Britain found that two-thirds of Brits want to see the Brexit transition period extended so the Government can “focus 100% of its energy on dealing with coronavirus for the rest of the year”.
The Focaldata survey of more than 2,000 voters found that of those who support an extension, 64% want to be be “indefinite”, with the rest saying it should last for a year at most.
Nearly half of Leave voters – 49% – also support delaying the UK’s exit from the transition period, which is due to end on 31 Decemeber.