Dover port

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The government reportedly admitted to some delay-causing ‘challenges’ just weeks ahead of the implementation of its post-Brexit border strategy

The government has denied reports that post-Brexit checks on EU goods “won’t be ‘turned on’” from the end of the month.

A statement from Defra on Friday morning said that media reports claiming health and safety checks on EU imports would be “turned off” were “misleading”.

“As has been previously outlined, we will be commencing checks from 30 April”, the statement said.

It came after a report by the Financial Times claimed Defra had told port authorities it would not “’turn on’ critical health and safety checks for EU imports” because of the risk of “significant disruption”.

Officials reportedly outlined a plan to prevent queues of lorries entering the UK from the bloc, which included significantly reducing the number of physical checks on plant and food products due to begin at the end of the month, over fears the new border systems would not be fully prepared.

Cabinet office minister Lucy Neville-Rolfe, who has been spearheading the BTOM rollout, told The Grocer on Thursday that “we’re ready to go”.

“We bought the first phase of the BTOM in in January, that went pretty smoothly, and we’ve got good teams working on all of this,” she said.

“My expectation is that the new system will come in [at the end of the month] – it needs to come in for very good reasons relating to having a proper border and being able to detect pests and diseases.

“Hopefully all will go well and we’re on course for 30 April.”

Read more: Brexit import charges will ‘cripple the industry and drive up food prices’

So-called medium- and high-risk goods such as meat, fish and dairy are to be subjected to physical checks at the UK’s borders as part of the government’s post-Brexit trade strategy – also known as the Border Target Operating Model.

But the government said the rate of checks was initially “set to zero for all commodity groups” in what it deemed a “phased implementation approach”, as per the FT report.

Defra’s statement claimed the priority for physical controls from day one “will be on the highest-risk goods”.

Port health authorities will be conducting documentary checks on consignments of all risk levels and will contact traders where they have concerns, it added. Checks will then “be scaled up to full check levels in a sensible and controlled way”.

A government spokesperson added on Friday: “As we have always said, the goods posing the highest biosecurity risk are being prioritised as we build up to full check rates and high levels of compliance.

“Taking a pragmatic approach to introducing our new border checks minimises disruption, protects our biosecurity and benefits everyone – especially traders.

“We are confident we have sufficient capacity and capability across all points of entry to handle the volume and type of expected checks. It is important to remember the cost of our border checks is negligible compared to the impact of a major disease outbreak on our economy and farmers.”

Phil Pluck, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation – which represents the perishable goods trade sector – argued that high-risk goods “have always been subjected to those checks”, and that the latest statement regarding a phased inspection process of medium-risk goods “will only cause further confusion unless Defra take leadership of this latest statement and communicate very clearly what will happen and when”.

Defra did not clarify when it would lift the suspension on border checks on medium-risk goods, indicating the systems would be progressively implemented rather than all at once as previously anticipated.

Read more: Brexit border rules: the big questions still to answer on imports

Border controls on EU goods have been postponed five times since the UK officially left the EU in 2021, allowing continental exporters to ship goods to the UK without facing any additional requirements.

Meanwhile, British exports to the EU have faced full checks since then, which many in the food industry have claimed puts them at a commercial disadvantage.

However, businesses have repeatedly raised concerns that Britain’s borders – particularly the new government-run Sevington Border Control Post (BCP), which will process most of the EU goods entering the country via the Port of Dover or the Eurotunnel – are not prepared for the incoming influx of controls on goods.

Many have asked ministers to postpone the full controls until October to give border authorities and industry more time to prepare.

Supply chain trade body Logistics UK said on Friday members “do not share the government’s confidence that facilities, infrastructure and systems at the border will be ready for the new checks due to come into effect in two weeks’ time for foods and other items from the EU”.

“As well as serious concerns about the cumulative cost of all these new processes on SMEs in particular, fundamental questions remain about the capabilities of the government’s facilities to process loads containing food and other perishable goods efficiently and at pace”, said Nichola Mallon, the group’s head of trade and devolved policy.

“Any delays can ruin fresh produce, making it worthless and this could cause breaks in the UK’s interconnected supply chain.”

Logistics UK called for “urgent clarification from government” on the exact timeline as to when physical checks will be scaled up and whether the common user charge – a fee imposed on all medium and high-risk consignments from the EU that is meant to help partially fund the Sevington BCP – will also be applied in a phased approach.

The CCF also urged Defra to be clear about the exact requirements and timelines of the new border systems.

“Food logistics businesses are trying to make final preparations for operating under the new system from 30 April, not only the changes that will be required to processes but also preparing for the additional costs, planning for mitigating anticipated disruption, and responding to the decisions of some EU-based customers to change or stop their exports to the UK,” Pluck said.

“The ongoing confusion about how and when new checks will be introduced makes these preparations incredibly challenging, but it is not too late for government to work with industry to improve the transition.

“A phased approach is the right one but businesses urgently need clear information about what exactly these phases will include, and a definitive timeline. Giving businesses the certainty they need will help minimise the inevitable cost impacts of the new system for businesses and for consumers.”

The Defra spokesperson also said the government would continue to work with “and support businesses throughout this process to maintain the smooth flow of imported goods”.