Michel barnier he told me officials would continue to work on the text of a trade deal but that he and his British counterpart, David Frost, had “decided to suspend negotiations at our level for a short period”.
“One of the negotiators on my team tested positive for Covid-19,” he tweeted. While the high-level talks are suspended, the negotiating teams “will continue their work in full compliance with the guidelines,” he said.
Officials involved in the talks said all those exposed to the EU negotiator who tested positive were being screened and Belgium’s self-isolation rules were being enforced. Participants in the discussions await further instructions.
Discussions take place in 11 different work streams covering everything from energy market coordination to fishing rights. The EU and UK negotiating teams are each made up of around 100 people, although some participate in remote meetings.
Those involved in the talks said Mr Barnier withdrew from a scheduled debriefing of national ambassadors on Friday and that he would be replaced by one of his senior officials.
A debriefing of members of the European Parliament, also scheduled for Friday, has been canceled.
British negotiators have held talks with the EU team in Brussels since Sunday, with growing hopes that a trade deal will cover UK relations with the bloc after the end of the transitional phase of Brexit. December 31 could be concluded in the coming days.
Lord Frost tweeted that he was in “close contact” with Mr Barnier about the situation. “The health of our teams comes first,” he said. “I would like to thank the European Commission for its immediate help and support.”
Discussions focused on the remaining sticking points of EU fishing fleet rights in UK waters, guarantees of a ‘level playing field’ for businesses and how to apply any deal.
The remainder of the treaty text, estimated at 1,800 pages, including annexes, is largely drafted, although the negotiating chapters are not officially closed.
Both sides seek to reach an agreement in time for it to be legally verified, translated and ratified by both parties before the end of the transition period. Officials in Brussels said it would become difficult to conclude if there was no deal by the end of next week.
Negotiations took place in one of the EU office buildings in the Schuman district of Brussels, a place frequently used for conferences and hearings in the pre-coronavirus era.
It is unclear how this development will affect the timing of Brexit negotiations. Officials had raised the idea of resuming talks in London next week as negotiators scrambled to strike a deal on the line.
Frequent cross-Channel trips in recent weeks by major EU and UK negotiating teams were an anomaly during the second wave of Covid-19. The UK Foreign Office currently advises against “all but essential travel” in Belgium.
A British government spokesperson said: “The commission informed us that an official in its delegation has tested positive for Covid-19. We are discussing with them the implications for the negotiations.
“We have acted and will continue to act in accordance with public health directives and to guarantee the health and well-being of our teams.”