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Tuesday 24 March 2020

Understandably, Brexit is a distant thought. In any case events on that front have ground to a complete halt following the government’s decision to put country on lockdown to stem the tide of the rapacious coronavirus outbreak.

For the foreseeable future, Brexit Brunch will be focused on Westminster and important stories on coronavirus, although we kick off today’s edition with what will most likely be the last piece of Brexit news for some time.

UK and EU chief negotiators contract COVID-19

On Thursday, it was revealed Michel Barnier had tested positive for COVID-19 after members of his negotiating team had picked up the virus on a trip to London. Later that day, the British government confirmed David Frost was showing symptoms and had placed himself in isolation.

Frost had not been in recent contact with his EU opposite number.

The second round of UK-EU trade talks, originally scheduled to take place in London that week had already been cancelled.

With the foreign office warning against international travel, particularly to coronavirus hotspots like Belgium – lockdowns are now in place on both sides of the Channel – talks look unlikely to resume until much later in the year.

The UK’s lockdown, announced by the prime minister last night will be reviewed after three weeks, but according to the Telegraph, the measures to curb social interaction and flatten the spread of infection could last anything up to six months, meaning talks might only resume at the very end of the year.

Farage tells Sadiq to sort out the tube

In his address to the nation last night, the prime minister told the public to limit travel to only essential trips such as commuting, while urging workers to stay at home if at all possible.

However, scenes from of the Underground this morning suggest the London Transport Authority is working against the government’s policy. It’s decision to limit the number of trains travelling each hour is having the opposite effect. Passengers are forced to press up against one another, aiding the virus’s spread.

“Disgraceful scenes on the London underground this morning,” tweeted Nigel Farage.

Shocking images of key workers like nurses and doctors pressed up against other commuters on the tube have been plastered all over social media for days, this morning is no exception. It’s bad enough that health workers risk infection every single day saving the lives of patients who have contracted the disease, for them to be unnecessarily exposed to that risk unnecessarily on their daily commute is totally unacceptable.

Yesterday, it was reported a thirty-six year old nurse, “normally fit and healthy” is in intensive care after catching the virus. In Spain, where the death toll is third highest globally, health workers make up one in ten of confirmed infections.

A more regular service would mean fewer passengers spread across more trains. Last week, TFL chose to limit the number of underground trains to dissuade people from using the Tube. It seems they didn’t factor in the need to provide a safe service for key workers who have no other means of getting to work.

Sunak set to rescue self-employed workers

The government is expected to formally announce income protections for freelancers and workers on zero hours contracts in the coming days.

Sun reports the Treasury has responded to pressure from senior Tories to provide support for vulnerable workers mirroring help already guaranteed to those on salaries.

“The Treasury has 48 hours to give them a lifeline,” said Iain Duncan Smith who is concerned for the 4.8m self-employed brits who are typically more vulnerable to economic dips (see FT tweet below) than those on long-term or permanent contracts.

The government has already guaranteed 80% of salary for workers at struggling businesses, earnings are capped at £2,500. The Treasury is now racing to come up with a safety net for other workers facing difficulties. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s team have reportedly dismissed Italy’s indiscriminate cash handouts because many self-employed are on big money, although the vast majority are not.

A treasury source said: “The targeting of it has to be really carefully put together because otherwise there are people who may count themselves and declare themselves as self-employed but are actually getting their income off their dividends of a company.

“So if you don’t do something that is really laser-like targeted then you could end up giving a massive subsidy to some people who don’t actually need it.

“But if there’s a self-employed construction worker whose profit margins are tiny and they have larger costs – for example if they lease out a van over the course of a year – how that costs are covered and how they make sure they don’t have huge outgoings at the same time as not having any work and working that out.”

Put simply, the problem, compared to PAYE is the government has less information to be able to to tell who needs the money and who doesn’t. Asking for that information will entail bureacracy struggling workers can do without, and the government can ill-afford to put in place. Whatever the solution, it needs to be delivered quickly.

An announcement will not come until tomorrow at the earliest. “We’ve been working at breakneck speed, officials were working over the weekend to draw up policy options for the chancellor,” the source added.