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UK looking to delay new EU border checks

09/03/2021

Government considering relaxing post-Brexit plans next month for border checks on food and other imports from the European Union because of fears of severe shortages

UK government Ministers are preparing to potentially relax post-Brexit plans for border checks on food and other imports from the European Union because of fears that they will further damage trade and could lead to severe shortages in UK supermarkets, according to a report in yesterday’s The Observer newspaper.

The publication reports it has been told by multiple sources that the government’s new Cabinet Office Minister, Lord Frost, is considering allowing “lighter touch” controls on imports from 1 April than are currently planned, and scaling back plans for full customs checks, including physical inspections, which are due to begin on 1 July.

One source said he had been told that Frost was preparing to put the plans, which could mean imports being allowed in even if clerical errors have been made by European companies, before fellow cabinet ministers this week, as evidence grows of how Brexit has hit trade with the EU.

The report also quoted a Downing Street source who confirmed that Frost had already ordered “a review of the timetable to ensure that we are not imposing unnecessary burdens on business” but added that it was “early in the process and no decisions have been made”.

With UK exporters to the EU having been severely hit by new rules, regulations and costs of operating under the post-Brexit regime, business organisations and senior figures in Whitehall now fear that EU exporters to the UK – particularly those involved with food – could be even less prepared than their UK counterparts were at the start of this year. A big worry is that delays resulting from checks could hit food supplies including the “just in time” delivery network.

One senior industry figure said: “The worry is that if we go ahead with more checks and move to checks on imports, then exporters will not be prepared, and on this side we are not ready for that either. There is not the infrastructure in place yet or the number of customs officials necessary to carry all this out.

“We have already seen exports badly affected. The next nightmare could be imports.”

While the Cabinet Office, run by Michael Gove, has attempted to downplay the effects of Brexit on UK trade, a survey last week by the Food and Drink Federation of its members that send goods to the EU found a 45% drop in exports since 1 January.

Asked by The Observer on Friday if he was confident that plans for more checks on imports from the EU could go ahead from 1 April and 1 July, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said: “We are working through these things with the joint committee and I think we are looking at everything. If there are problems, we are trying to address them. The systems and IT are all on track but we are keeping everything under review to make sure it is all as smooth as possible.”

In order to give businesses time to adapt, the UK government last year decided unilaterally that imports into the UK from the EU could operate as normal until 1 April, a move that the EU declined to reciprocate. From that date, under current plans, all items of animal origin such as meat, honey, milk or egg products, as well as regulated plants and plant products, will require full documentation and, where necessary, veterinary certificates to be sold in the UK. From 1 July, all companies exporting to the UK will be required to fill out full customs declarations and goods could be subjected to physical checks at new UK customs centres.

Richard Burnett, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, said: “We are hearing from government that they are going to take a ‘light touch’ approach to the next phase, or perhaps even an extension of the grace period. Although this is sensible to continue the uninterrupted flow of food products from the EU into Great Britain, I am concerned that it weakens the government’s negotiating leverage when asking for similar easements from the EU for UK businesses attempting to trade with them.”

As reported last week the International Transport Union (IRU) has warned that imports of fresh produce to the UK from the EU face serious disruption next month when new border controls are introduced, reflecting concerns expressed by others in the freight sector.

Matthias Maedge, director of Advocacy at the Geneva-based road haulage industry body, told the BBC’s Newsnight programme that there could be chaos when new changes to import procedures come into effect on 1 April  as a result of the UK government failing to properly warn and advise EU hauliers and businesses about the new checks and paperwork which will be required to bring goods from the EU into the UK.

“We are potentially facing chaos at the border and for moving goods into the UK, especially of fresh produce,” Maedge said. “We have already experienced this on the EU side with UK hauliers telling us that they are only exporting 20% of what they used to do – because it takes up to five days of bureaucracy and paperwork in order to get something into the EU. And it also takes six to eight hours longer to (transport) goods to the point of destination.

“The UK government doesn’t realise that they are facing a disaster because the UK is such a tiny exporter but they are such a huge importer.”

Some estimates suggest the UK imports 32% of its fruit and 80% of its vegetables from the EU.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA)’s director of policy, Rod McKenzie, last month told Lloyd's Loading List: “The big worry now are the two deadlines we've got ahead of us, one in April, and the other in July. Next month sees the start of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks on incoming shipments to the UK which we think will create extra friction and problems. And obviously, in July, when all the (EU) imports to the UK are subject to checks, that will be difficult. We're very worried about that.”

The Newsnight report also highlighted the concern expressed by some UK importers of fresh produce that additional red tape will put off EU exporters from trading with them.

Last week, logistics representatives welcomed the news that the UK government will extend the grace periods relating to border checks between Northern Ireland (NI) and Great Britain (GB) on some agri-food goods – also known as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) goods – which were set to expire after 31 March 2021.

The move follows widespread disruption reported by food retailers and freight and logistics operators of certain freight movements since the start of 2021 following the withdrawal of GB from the EU’s single market and customs union rules, creating a trading border with its fellow UK region, with food products, parcels and groupage movements particularly affected, which had led to a temporary short-term suspension of elements of the new trade arrangements.

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