But privately, UK economists are understood to consider the idea of the EU using Covid-19 as an excuse as “absurd” – believing there is no reason why discussions should be derailed. Director-General Roberto Azevedo announced the drastic measures today, with all WTO staff told to work from home until the end of March. Pieter Cleppe, formerly of the Open Europe think tank, told Express.co.uk: “It is too early to tell, but it does increase the chance the UK will request an extension after all, given the already strained resources of the government.
“Then even if a deal is closed without the UK requesting an extension, much is likely to remain the same whereby the UK diverges gradually.”
However, the idea of any delay to the transition period is likely to prove enormously contentious, given the enormous resources at the bloc’s disposal, and other analysts have indicated any such move by Brussels would be regarded as an absurd excuse.
One legal expert: “It’s absurd to think that a few people either being ill or fearing getting ill prevents anything. It clearly doesn’t.
“It may prevent all sorts of other things, but not the negotiations.”
Article 184 of the Withdrawal Agreement states: “The EU and the United Kingdom shall use their best endeavours, in good faith and in full respect of their respective legal orders, to take the necessary steps to negotiate expeditiously the agreements governing their future relationship referred to in the Political Declaration of 17 October 2019 and to conduct the relevant procedures for the ratification or conclusion of those agreements, with a view to ensuring that those agreements apply, to the extent possible, as from the end of the transition period.”
After waiting for more than three years, Brexiteers are unlikely to happy at the prospect of any further delay, and will argue the commitments outlined above remain unaffected by the situation in respect of coronavirus.
“This decision will be reviewed by the end of March.”
The move was announced after discussions between the Director-General and the General Council Chair Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand.
Mr Walker has said he fully endorses the announced measures.
Meanwhile the WTO is reviewing alternatives for arranging virtual meetings to allow members to participate remotely.
The idea of a delay to the transition period was broached by Labour MP David Lammy earlier this week.
The Tottenham MP tweeted: “The government can’t negotiate the future of Britain’s trade with the EU in a few months during what could well become a global coronavirus pandemic.
“Boris Johnson needs to swallow his pride and put the national interest first.
“That means agreeing an extension with the EU.”
Next week’s scheduled trade talks between the UK and EU were cancelled in response to the escalating crisis.
A joint statement said: “Given the latest COVID-19 developments, UK and EU negotiators have today jointly decided not to hold next week’s round of negotiations in London, in the form originally scheduled.”