British and EU trade negotiation teams are still having to communicate via video call after a member of the Brussels team tested positive for the coronavirus, as time runs out to clinch a deal.
Officials on both sides say they must get back to face-to-face negotiations some time this week. However, the disruption is such that neither side has yet been able to say when this will be possible.
Boris Johnson and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, are expected to speak on the telephone before the weekend, as adherence to a supposed mid-November deadline for striking an accord becomes increasingly far-fetched.
Asked about the rumours from Brussels that difficult topics may be put to one side and finished next year, the prime minister’s spokesperson told reporters: “Our position hasn’t changed.”
Mr Johnson has repeatedly said he is prepared to take Britain out of the customs union without an agreement – a move that will happen automatically on 31 December if no alternative is found, and which it is expected would cause acute economic disruption.
Speaking on Monday as video conferences continued, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, struck a familiar tone.
“After technical discussions this weekend, negotiations continue online today with David Frost and our teams,” he said.
“Time is short. Fundamental divergences still remain, but we are continuing to work hard for a deal.”
Despite a lack of serious movement on key issues for months, including in the most recent period of “intense” negotiations, there are still some optimists in the EU camp.
Speaking during a visit to Dublin’s port on Monday, the Irish premier, Micheal Martin, said of the possibility of a deal that he remained hopeful the two negotiating teams could “pull one off” in time.
“I would be hopeful that by the end of this week we could see the outline of a deal,” the Taoiseach said, adding that it “remains to be seen”.
“I do sense that both negotiating teams, they’ve made progress – that’s the point,” he said.
“I think the presentation made last week by the president of the Commission was probably one of the more hopeful presentations made to date.”
Britain technically left the EU early in 2020 but will remain in a transition period until 11pm on 31 December 2020. It is currently negotiating a trade agreement to govern future relations with the bloc.