The government’s ‘worst-case scenario’ planning for Brexit border disruption next year is now set to become reality, warn food industry leaders, who fear certain food shortages may follow.
The Cabinet Office’s ‘worst-case scenario’ planning document published in September forecast up to 40% of food trade between the UK and the EU could grind to a halt as unprepared lorries congest the ports following the end of the transition period.
The EU supplies the UK with 26% of its food, according to Defra, meaning the disruption could leave a significant shortfall in the nation’s food supplies. For fresh fruit and vegetables, the UK is even more reliant on the continent, particularly during the winter season.
Government officials and food industry representatives met this week to discuss the issue, with Dan McCartney, Defra’s head of food security and resilience, telling industry figures on Tuesday to “expect 40% flow rates”, according to one attendee. On Thursday, a group gathered again to discuss the “medium-term risk to UK border flows”, said another.
“[Defra] wanted to run it past industry to see whether we agreed that’s a reasonable worst-case scenario,” said one industry source. “A lot of us are looking at it and thinking, that’s just what’s going to happen.”
The government’s ‘worst-case scenario’ predicted 40%-70% of trucks travelling to the EU may not be ready for new border controls, resulting in queues of up to 7,000 trucks on motorways across Kent.
While the UK intends to delay implementing full border controls until July next year, Europeans have said they will enforce all checks from 1 January. The Cabinet Office said this could not only restrict exports but delay European trucks from returning to Europe to pick up new consignments, thereby disrupting both imports and exports “to a similar extent”.
While rumours of a trade deal have amplified this week, many senior industry figures remain concerned food supplies are set to be tight in January regardless. “I can’t see any other possibility than food shortages,” said one industry executive, echoing Tesco’s chairman John Allan last month who warned there could be fresh food shortages for up to “a few months”.
Despite regular meetings between Defra officials and food representatives, Shane Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation, believes “there is still a pretty high level of complacency” within government.
“I don’t think they are really able to conceptualise exactly how the interruptions will play out in terms of the impact on consumers,” he said. “No one’s going to starve, there won’t be empty shelves. But there will be products missing and there will be inflationary pressure on prices.”
A Defra spokesman said the government is supporting the food industry in its “preparations for a range of scenarios” and will continue to work closely with it “to ensure people across the country have the food and supplies they need”.
This week the Department for Education advised schools to purchase long-life products as part of preparations for “possible changes to their food supply chain from 1 January 2021”.