The UK will delay checks on some EU imports while it seeks a solution on trade of foodstuffs with Northern Ireland, according to officials and a new piece of legislation.
The official government line is that businesses should still prepare for an October deadline, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed on Thursday that there will be a further delay to checks on chilled meats.
Other officials familiar with the matter said they expected the 1 October deadline to be stalled for products like eggs, dairy products, and others. Earlier reports from Bloomberg and PoliticsHome, privately indicated as accurate by officials, said all checks on all animal goods would be delayed.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Businesses have faced a range of challenges over recent months as they respond to the global pandemic.”
“By allowing some chilled meat items to continue to be imported from the EEA [European Economic Area] until 1 January 2022, firms will be able to focus on their recovery and maintain existing supply lines.”
This latest delay would be the UK government’s third, after the original plan was for checks to imposed in January 2021.
According to officials and industry insiders the matter is also complicated by imposing checks on food being exported from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Lord Frost said on Monday in a written ministerial statement that the UK will extend grace periods on checks in Northern Ireland, including export health certificates, and have a standstill arrangement to “provide space for discussions” about changes to the protocol. It would therefore be politically challenging to impose fresh checks on foodstuffs going in the other direction, according to officials.
Separately, people familiar with customs processes in Wales said the country, which carries much of the trade traffic from the island of Ireland to the UK, is not ready to handle check on meats and other animal products from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, including export health certificates.
The same people added that the Welsh government is also concerned that any fresh checks will further hit its ports such as Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock which get the lion’s share of their traffic from across the Irish sea, and have registered sharp post-Brexit declines in activity.
However, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the government’s official position is still that the October deadline will go ahead for products aside from chilled meats.
A UK government spokesperson said: “Businesses should continue to prepare for new import checks in October and January.” They added that advice for traders was available on gov.uk.
Trade experts argue it would make sense to delay the introduction of the October checks. Such a move would mirror the government’s concession to businesses by delaying the post-Brexit UK quality mark required for goods to be sold on the UK market.
“At a time of serious supply chain disruption, it would make sense if the UK decided to further delay the imposition of new controls on food and products entering the UK from Europe,” said Sam Lowe, senior research fellow at the Centre for Europe Reform, a think tank. “But this is becoming a recurring theme, with deadlines being pushed back late in the day.”
The government should reconsider their approach, Mr Lowe said: “It would be preferable for the government to provide a much more realistic, long-term roadmap for businesses, and then stick to it.”
Peter Hardwick, policy advisor for the British Meat Processors’ Association, said that delaying the introduction of checks “makes sense” from a practical point of view.
“Introducing these checks may not be terminal for EU businesses but they may choose not to trade with the UK. That would put even further pressure on food supplies and empty shelves.”
He added: “But it is frustrating that our businesses have had to jump through these hoops since January and EU businesses will not need to jump through the same hoops until 2022.”
He said that the current system of certification and pre-notification of goods “isn’t fit for purpose”.
“Our belief is that the sooner the EU feels the same pain, the sooner we can get around the table and deal with that because it’s not working.”
“Delaying this just takes the decision away from the negotiating table and that’s a missed opportunity. The reality is today the cost for British companies delivering goods to the EU has doubled and it takes twice as long as it did before Brexit.”
Another industry insider, who did not have permission from their employer to speak on the record, said they would welcome a move to delay checks, but it comes months after conflicting guidance from officials working on imposing the checks in private, compared to the official government line.
“These [deadlines] are very real financial decisions at a time when balance sheets have been battered by Covid-19. For businesses, it’s often a choice between investment on the necessary administration for imports today, or a fresh hire tomorrow,” they said.