The troubled Brexit trade and security talks have been suspended at the highest level and Michel Barnier has gone into self-isolation after a member of the EU’s negotiating team tested positive for coronavirus.
The bloc’s chief negotiator tweeted that he had agreed with his British counterpart, David Frost, that the core teams would need to pause face-to-face talks in Brussels.
The pause risks derailing an already tight deadline for a successful outcome from the talks, which were already stalled in March when both Barnier and Frost contracted the virus.
Despite difficult discussions on the most contentious issues, the two sides had been aiming to strike an agreement by next week to allow time for the European parliament to ratify any potential deal, with a possible emergency sitting on 28 December pencilled in.
Under Belgian law, anyone testing positive should quarantine for seven days while those who have had contact with an infected person must stay in isolation for 10 days.
Barnier tweeted: “One of the negotiators in my team has tested positive for Covid-19. With David Frost we have decided to suspend the negotiations at our level for a short period. The teams will continue their work in full respect of guidelines.”
It is understood Barnier will ask a commission official outside his senior team to brief EU ambassadors in person on Friday morning about the latest twists and turns in the negotiations.
Shortly after Barnier’s announcement, Frost also issued a short statement. He tweeted: “I am in close contact with Michel Barnier about the situation. The health of our teams comes first. I would like to thank the European commission for their immediate help and support.”
The negotiation is on a knife-edge with some member states privately calling on the European commission to ramp up no-deal preparations to prepare businesses for the worst.
It is understood the two sides are examining the wider implications for the running of the talks, with the issue complicated by the different quarantine rules in the UK and Belgium.
Under the UK regulations, those who have been contact with someone who has tested positive must quarantine for 14 days – four days longer than under Belgian law.
It is yet to be seen how widely this will affect the UK and EU teams who have been locked in talks in Brussels since Monday. There are 50 UK officials in the Belgian capital. All physical meetings have been suspended with only online discussions continuing.
In six weeks the UK’s transition period will end and it will leave the EU’s single market and customs union.
A UK government spokesman said: “The commission has informed us that an official in their delegation has tested positive for Covid-19. We are discussing with them the implications for the negotiations.”