The Week in Westminster: Coronavirus and an early clash with the EU

Your need-to-know guide to this week's UK political happenings

There’s been one word on everyone’s lips this week: coronavirus. As Covid-19 finally made its effects known in Europe, there has been pressure on the government to make it clear how they would respond should the virus become widespread in the UK. Elsewhere, ongoing floods in northern England – and warning of another flood this weekend – have caused continued political headaches while early Brexit negotiation have got off to a bumpy start. Here’s what you need to know from the week in Westminster

Will coronavirus become a UK crisis?

Despite the infection rate of coronavirus in China seeming to slow, it is now picking up speed across the rest of the world, with the first serious consequences felt in Europe this week. A number of towns in northern Italy are on lockdown after the country’s number of confirmed cases rose to more than 650 while the cases in the UK now stand at 19, with a number of office buildings in London’s Canary Wharf closing on Wednesday after patients were discovered in the area. Meanwhile, international events from Six Nations matches to Paris Fashion Week parties have been cancelled to prevent further spread.

In the UK, the government has advised against all but essential travel to mainland China while those who have recently traveled to Thailand, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Macau or north Italy are recommended to self-isolate for two weeks should they be displaying any flu-like symptoms.

On Wednesday Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned MPs to expect more cases and advised that Public Health England would be stepping up testing to ascertain the true spread of the virus within the UK. He also said the UK was prepared for a pandemic and cautioned against ‘overreaction’, saying the government was still within the ‘contain phase’. However, it was announced on Friday that Johnson would hold an emergency Cobra meting on Monday to ensure everything possible to avoid a mass outbreak was being done.

As well as the health impact, there are growing fears about how a global contagion could affect the world economy. Markets, including the FTSE 100, have tumbled amid concerns about the fallout of the disease, with analysts warning it could present economic damage on par with the 2008 financial crash. For obvious reasons, the share prices of tourism companies and airlines have been hardest hit while luxury brands that rely heavily on Chinese consumers are also warning of predicted losses.

A bumpy start to Brexit

After a few weeks in which Brexit news has been relatively sparse, it became clear this week that negotiations are not getting off to the best start. On Tuesday, No. 10 rejected the EU’s opening trade deal offer, calling it ‘onerous’ and stating it was worse than that offered to the US, Canada and Japan. The sticking point appears to be the ‘level playing field’ commitment made in the political declaration signed by both parties before Brexit took place.

Despite previously agreeing that, because of the geographic proximity and economic interdependence of the UK and the EU, any agreement should be based upon open and fair competition, Downing Street has now said it recognises no need for a level playing field as other, further removed, nations are not subject to the EU rules which would ensure this.

The UK government responded on Thursday with its Future Relationship with the EU document. A comparison of the announcements from the two sides make it clear that further difficulties may come over fisheries, how far the UK diverges from regulations on food safety and animal health, rules around cross-border financial services, whether or not Gibraltar is included in the trade deal and the potential role of the European Courts of Justice. On Thursday Johnson also announced that, despite warnings from senior law enforcement officials, the UK would be pulling out of the European arrest warrant scheme – a crucial tool used to fast track the movement of criminals across borders.

Talks are due to being in earnest on Monday but the Prime Minister has already stated that, by June, should the progress made not be to his liking he is prepared to walk away from negotiations altogether and accept a no deal end to the transition period.

Anything else?

As it happens, yes. If you’re safe in the confines of London then spare a though for those in the Midlands who, on top of the flooding inflicted by Storms Ciara and Dennis, are due to be battered by Storm Jorge this weekend. Flood defences on the River Severn have already buckled with individual costs for repairs now mounting to the thousands. Despite this, Environment Secretary George Eustice told the annual conference of the National Farmers Union – many of whose members have been affected – that he did not see the need for an inquiry and that the government has ‘had a grip on the situation’. He did, however, concede there was work to be done and promised £4bn over the next five years to improve defences. Following this address, he visited the site of the ruptured Severn flood defences but has been criticised for failing to meet any of those evacuated from the area.

Elsewhere the planned third runway at Heathrow has been deemed illegal because ministers did not adequately consider the government’s climate crisis commitments as set out in the Paris Agreement. The government has said it will not appeal the decision and is now deciding whether to draw up a new policy document to approve the runway or scrap the project entirely.

Finally, over in the Labour camp, leadership candidates Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy have shifted into attack mode as early polls show Keir Starmer leading with 53% of the vote. The campaigns for the trailing candidates have raised questions over the source of Starmer’s campaign donations – none of which have been disclosed – while reminding voters that Starmer resigned from his front bench position during the coup against Jeremy Corbyn, suggesting he cannot be trusted to guard Labour’s values. However, as Starmer appears to be the only candidate capable of winning back the trust lost by Labour in the recent general election, all indications remain that the leadership is his to lose.

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