“However politically painful it might be for the government, the impact of the coronavirus will reach far beyond the public health implications and into the heart of our economy,” says Wes Streeting, an opposition Labour lawmaker. “In good times, leaving the EU on the timetable announced by the government would be a challenge. Trying to stick to that timetable purely for political reasons would be irresponsible.”
The UK is already living some of those implications. Panic-buying has led to shortages of many everyday household products, most notably toilet paper. And if you think empty shelves are a problem now, consider this: according to the Confederation of Paper Industries, the UK imports about 60% of the materials used to make tissue products from the EU. And up to 55% of that demand is for toilet paper.
Some in Brussels wonder if a time will come when experts advising Johnson tell him that, given the scale of the coronavirus problem, refusing to extend the transition period and throwing trade links and supply chains out the window is a bad idea. And if trade talks with the EU slow because of coronavirus, meaning that nothing has been agreed come June, can Johnson really risk food, medicine and other shortages for the sake of saving face?
“Now that future relationship talks are being interrupted, it is inevitable that both sides will have to start considering possible extensions,” says Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska at the Centre for European Reform, based in Brussels.