LONDON, Sept. 1 (Xinhua) -- UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired a Downing Street meeting of his most senior ministers Tuesday as the parliamentary machine sprung back into action after its lengthy summer recess.
With issues surrounding COVID-19 high on the agenda, the focus was also on latest developments on the Brexit front, with looming fears a future trading deal between Britain and Brussels will not be reached by the end of this year.
According to media reports in London, Number 10 played down prospects of reaching a trade deal, with an official spokesperson for Johnson saying it will be very difficult, heaping blame on Brussels' insistence on tackling tough issues before a deal can be brokered.
Britain's chief negotiator David Frost met Tuesday his EU counterpart Michel Barnier in London for informal talks ahead of the next round of formal talks next week.
The EU side is expected to hold a critical meeting next month when it hopes to finalise a trade agreement with Britain. It said it needs the green light in October to enable the 27 member states of the bloc to have enough time to sign-off any agreement before the end of this year.
Time though, said political analysts, is running short with a deadline looming in a matter of weeks.
The Guardian said Johnson's official spokesman conceded that hopes of a deal were dwindling.
"The EU continues to insist that we must agree on difficult areas in the negotiations, such as EU state aid, before any further work can be done in any other area of the negotiations, including on legal texts, and that makes it very difficult to make progress," the spokesperson said in a media briefing after the cabinet meeting.
The spokesperson said an agreement with Brussels was still possible, but warned it would not be easy to achieve because of differences between the two sides.
The Guardian said Brussels has consistently said it wants to see issues such as the fisheries policy and state aid settled up front.
Johnson's spokesperson said: "We'll set out further detail of our domestic regime in due course. After the transition period, the UK will have its own regime of subsidy control, and will not be subject to the EU's state aid regime. We have been very clear about that throughout."
"The UK's future subsidy arrangements are a matter for the British people and parliament, not the EU."
Although Britain ended its membership of the bloc on Jan. 31, it is abiding by EU rules during a transition period which expires Dec. 31. Johnson has insisted Britain will not seek an extension.
That would mean Britain trading with the EU on WTO terms from January if there is no deal in place.
Meanwhile, Johnson is facing calls to address a meeting this week of backbench Conservative MPs, back at Westminster Tuesday. Many MPs are said to be disillusioned by the number of government U-turns on high school exam results and other issues linked to the pandemic.
Their fury was made worse by the latest opinion poll showing the Conservatives and main opposition Labour running neck and neck on 40 points each. Just months ago Johnson's party was racing ahead with a 26 point margin.
Johnson's spokesperson told the media briefing U-turns were an inevitable part of responding to an unprecedented situation.
The spokesperson said: "We have been responding to a global pandemic with an entirely novel virus and we have been guided by the scientific advice and as more is learned about the virus then we have ensured we have taken the right steps to keep the public safe. But the PM is clear the government will not be knocked off course of levelling up the country."