Five things we learnt from this week’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday

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As Brexit talks go down to the wire, whether or not the UK manages to strike a trade deal with the EU dominated this week’s show, along with the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic.

1) A ‘very difficult’ position

Brexit talks are “in a very difficult position” after a “setback” in the last couple of days, the environment secretary has told Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

George Eustice said there had been hope of a breakthrough this week, but the European Union had “added a whole load of additional demands”.

Saying “we will find out in the next day or two whether it is an exercise that the EU is engaged in maybe to have one final try to get a few other things over the line”, Mr Eustice suggested it could be a “choreographed” move – and said the UK would “continue work on these negotiations until there is no point in doing so any further”.

Talks are resuming today in Brussels in what has been described as a “final throw of the dice”, though Mr Eustice reiterated that the government was prepared for a no-deal exit if it came.

2) ‘Economic war’

If the UK does leave the EU with no deal it faces an “economic war” with Europe and America, according to Gordon Brown.

The former prime minister and chancellor, last in power as the world grappled with the fallout of the 2008 financial crash, said the lack of a deal would “cost us very dearly” and “food, drugs and everything else we would find it difficult to get into the country without tariffs and without holdups”.

He predicted that “Boris Johnson is going to end up as the most isolated prime minister in peacetime history with no friends around the world because he has simply chosen a path of confrontation” and said “it is in Britain’s economic interests to get a deal and to get a deal now.”

He gave the chancellor some free advice too, saying: “I used to say when I was the chancellor there were only two kinds of chancellor: there were those who failed and there were those who got out just in time, and if I was Rishi Sunak, I would think that handing out all this money, his problems are really now beginning.”

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Brown said the chancellor had “not provided for the recovery in the way it should be done and I think he faces huge problems in the future and that will decide his fate… I think he is making some mistakes now that he should rectify”.

3) Vaccine contingencies

Despite the anticipated disruption at the UK’s borders in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the environment secretary did promise that vaccines coming in from Europe wouldn’t be affected.

Mr Eustice told the show “huge amounts of work has gone on to maintain the flow of goods at the border” and contingency plans for vaccine doses were ready “including a government procured ferry that is on standby and of course, the option, should it be needed, to use air freight too”.

A total of 800,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech are on their way to the UK this week ahead of the vaccine rolling out across the country.

While the environment secretary wasn’t very clear on how many vaccine doses were heading to the UK, others had a bit more information.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, told the show that “up to four million doses” of vaccine were expected in the UK by the end of the month.

She told the programme the low temperature the vaccine needs to be kept at meant it “can only be administered in hospitals but trusts up and down the country are working with the [medical regulator] to see if they can get them distributed more closely to care homes so that they can go into care homes and sort the vaccines for those residents”.

4) ‘Out of their depth’

What links a former England footballer’s time managing Valencia and the government’s response to coronavirus?

If you ask Gary Neville, it’s because both he and Boris Johnson were out of their depth in their respective situations.

“I was spinning and I had to just jump off the roundabout…I didn’t know what I was doing”, Neville told Sophy about his torrid four months managing the Spanish club, adding “that’s what I feel in the last eight months I’ve seen in the leadership of this country”.

Calling for “a plan that surely works”, he said the UK was “none the wiser as to how our long-term looks, how our short-term looks, how our medium-term looks. In Manchester we don’t know whether we’re coming out of a lockdown in two weeks and if we come out of that lockdown we don’t know if we’ll be going back in it again two weeks’ later.”

But Neville’s criticism was bipartisan, with strong words for Labour after the party abstained from the latest vote on coronavirus restrictions.

“You’re in that seat in Westminster, you’ve to take a position, you don’t abstain, you take part in the match, you’re the opposition,” he said, saying it was as if Labour had “sat in the stand while the home team had a clear run”.

5) Neither for nor against

The shadow home secretary wasn’t taking the criticism lying down though, saying “we didn’t sit in the stands at all, what we did is to act in the national interest”.

Nick Thomas-Symonds said Labour “accepted first of all that there should be restrictions, that’s why we didn’t oppose them but at the same time there were still issues so for example, there wasn’t a comprehensive health and indeed economic strategy alongside the restrictions, there wasn’t a communications strategy, there wasn’t the strategy we need around test, trace and isolate”.

Having defended Labour’s abstention on coronavirus regulations, Mr Thomas-Symonds signally failed to rule out a repetition on Brexit.

Despite predicting that no deal would be “catastrophic”, the shadow home secretary refused to say what Labour’s position would be – and that the party needed “to see what has been agreed, I think that’s a sensible, responsible position to take but we very much hope there is a deal”.

He said the government “absolutely need to get a deal” and “we all know what the consequences of no-deal would be for the country both in terms of jobs and livelihoods all across the United Kingdom but also in terms of that security partnership that we need”.

It reflects a reported divide within Labour’s frontbench, as the party tries to avoid alienating Brexit voters while retaining its freedom to criticise the government for any failures.

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