MICHEL Barnier has told European ambassadors Boris Johnson's controversial plan to over-ride the EU withdrawal agreement is designed to divert attention away from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking to senior diplomats from eight Eastern EU countries, Brussels’ chief negotiator called the UK move a provocation, and said that the Prime Minister’s domestic considerations may be part of the reason for the UK's plans.

The Conservative Government has come under significant criticism over its response to the Covid crisis, with more than 41,000 people losing their lives across the UK - the highest death toll in Europe.

Johnson's administration has also come under fire over the decision to delay going into lockdown later than other countries on the European continent, as well as a series of mixed messages over the wearing of masks.

READ MORE: Kenny MacAskill calls for SNP to practice 'semi-abstentionism' and leave London

It has also faced criticism for the system it set up to test people for the virus with those potentially infected struggling to get tests and being asked to travel to centres hundreds of miles from their homes.

After Downing Street last week announced that it planned to override elements of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that Johnson signed with the EU in October 2019, the EU’s negotiator on Monday hinted that may have been designed as a political distraction for his domestic audience.

Barnier also said that London’s strategy in the talks is not transparent but laid out two possible interpretations: The more positive interpretation, Barnier said, is that Johnson is interested in a trade agreement with Brussels but is attempting to gain leverage.

The more pessimistic outlook is that the UK is ready for a non-agreement scenario, Barnier said, according to two of the individuals who briefed the Politico EU website.

Barnier told ambassadors, however, that he is optimistic the two sides can find solutions on outstanding points of disagreement such as fish and the so-called level playing field, to agree on a post-Brexit trade deal.

READ MORE: FACT CHECK: Does the Internal Market Bill protect half a million jobs?

The bloc last week called on the UK Government to withdraw some of its draft Internal Market Bill “in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month,” warning it has a “number of mechanisms and legal remedies” to address “violations” of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

The bill passed its first parliamentary stage at Westminster on Monday, though Johnson faced a rebellion by some of his backbenchers.

Five former Prime Ministers have criticised the bill, including Johnson's predecessor Theresa May who said it will damage trust in the UK.

Other Conservatives said it would be “regarded world-wide as an act of bad faith”, and the Government must show the UK's “honour is not for sale or barter”.

May and former chancellor Savid Javid led the Tory revolt on Monday night with both abstaining to vote on the controversial legislation.

The next key vote on the bill is expected in the Commons on Tuesday.