Business cannot prepare for a no-deal Brexit in the middle of a pandemic

Carolyn Fairbairn is director general of the Confederation of British Industry.

Away from this unparalleled health and economic crisis, Brexit talks continue from a distance.

For many firms facing unrelenting stress from COVID-19, these talks have been out of sight, though not quite out of mind. Their total focus is on immediate survival and recovery. But as more businesses take tentative steps to reopen slowly and safely, every decimal point of economic growth is being fought for. They expect that same spirit to be replicated when Brexit talks resume Tuesday.

The signals so far are not encouraging. Both the U.K. and the EU negotiating teams have rigid mandates and are following them to the letter. Negotiation by videoconference doesn’t allow for the kind of side-line conversations that normally help smooth differences in trade talks.

Unless the dynamic shifts, it looks like both sides will stay trapped in a holding pattern, with no trade deal a real possibility at the end of the year, when the transition period is scheduled to end. For businesses, jobs and economic confidence in this most challenging of years, this would be a shocking outcome.

With 40 percent of the economy closed, 8 million people in furlough and not working, the U.K. is already in recession.

For many firms fighting to keep their heads above water through the crisis, the idea of preparing for a chaotic change in EU trading relations in seven months is beyond them. They are not remotely prepared. Faced with the desperate challenges of the pandemic, their resilience and ability to cope is almost zero.

With 40 percent of the economy closed,

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