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

Brexit’s back, all right.

The clock is ticking for the government to reach a deal, so Sophy Ridge has spoken to Environment Secretary George Eustice and Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney about what could happen.

I dare you

Ireland’s foreign minister threw down the gauntlet to the UK on the show by saying that no matter how limited and specific the plans, if the UK got prepared to break international law it would result in no deal.

Simon Coveney said even if a trade deal were agreed it “won’t be ratified by the EU” as “there is no way the EU will agree to ratify a new agreement if the British government is breaking the existing agreement which is not even 12 months old”.

The ultimatum rests on the UK’s Internal Market Bill, recently overhauled in the Lords to remove clauses enabling the breaking of international law (themselves put in for use in the event of a no-deal exit).

Mr Coveney said the EU view was “absolutely unanimous”, emphasising the UK would not be able to pick off any individual member states.

With that warning fresh in everyone’s minds, he then said negotiations were “running out of time”, offering the carrot that while a deal was “very difficult” it was “also very doable”.

In keeping with many of his UK counterparts, Mr Coveney identified the other sticking points as commitments to the “level playing field” and on fishing.

He said the deal could well collapse over fishing with the two sides “very far apart in terms of the expectations on the British side and the negotiating mandate that Michel Barnier has on the EU side”.

Feeling lucky

Taking Mr Coveney up on the challenge was Environment Secretary George Eustice.

Deal or no deal, he said “we will be putting those measures back” and that “they are very important, they just really bring clarity to mechanisms that are already in the withdrawal agreement”.

Making a somewhat circular point, he said the fact the government’s actions raised the possibility of no deal could be rendered irrelevant as “if there’s not an agreement then these changes will be needed, if there is an agreement they won’t be needed”.

Mr Eustice said both sides should focus on getting “a free trade, future partnership agreement”.

He agreed that fishing was one of the major issues, saying “it’s very important to coastal communities up and down the country”.

Despite the small contribution the industry makes to the UK (providing an estimated £1.4bn to the UK’s economy in 2018, compared to fashion at roughly £32bn), the environment secretary argued it wouldn’t be “right” for the UK “to be the only country in the world that doesn’t control its own waters”.

COVID is slowing

The rate of growth of coronavirus is slowing, the UK’s national statistician told Sophy Ridge.

“The good news is yes, we are seeing a slowdown in the rate of growth,” said Sir Ian Diamond. “That means we’re still increasing and we are now in England at around about 1.25 per thousand.

“That means that one in 85 people in England we believe have the virus; in Wales it is less at one in a hundred; Scotland one in 135; and Northern Ireland one in 105.”

Sir Ian, who is also head of the Office of National Statistics, said there was “huge regional variation” in England and “steady increases” had been seen in the North West, North East and Yorkshire “although they have tended to flatten off in recent weeks a little”.

Fines for anti-vaxxers

Labour has made a push for social media firms to face financial penalties if they host anti-vaccine content on their platforms.

Jonathan Ashworth told Sophy Ridge that Labour would give cross-party backing to the government if it provided “strong public health messaging”, mobilised the NHS and public health teams “properly” to get a vaccine out, and dealt with the “dangerous nonsense” of anti-vaccine advocates.

He acknowledged that “people have legitimate questions about the vaccine” which ought to be allayed by proper messaging, saying forcing people to take it would be counterproductive.

It was at this point the weather intervened, first turning his umbrella inside out and next hurling a lighting rig at him – which Mr Ashworth managed to catch before it hit him.

Struggling with the latter, he acknowledged that “this is one of those clips that will go viral”.

The shadow health secretary can at least comfort himself that colleagues including the shadow Scotland secretary have variously praised his demeanour, catching abilities and in one case his “coiffed hair” for staying “beautifully in place” throughout.

Keep schools open

Finally, schools should not close despite SAGE reporting more than 1,000 coronavirus outbreaks in educational settings since September, according to the head of Ofsted.

“I don’t think it says that everybody believes that schools are the biggest problem in this pandemic,” Amanda Spielman told Sophy Ridge.

“The message that we’ve been putting across from the reports we published this week is how extraordinarily high the damage to children can be when they are taken out of all the normal structures and systems that help them develop and look after them for many months.”

She warned that “not just their education but their personal development can go backwards, their social skills and, of course, that watchdog eye that teachers have for the bigger things going wrong in children’s lives” saying it made for a “really, really strong set of reasons why there’s a great deal of advantages for keeping children in school”.

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