Food leaders have urged the government to ”move fast” to prevent disruption at ports leading to food shortages, after Michael Gove announced post-Brexit barriers would be imposed on trade from the EU from 1 January 2021.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster yesterday gave logistics industry bosses the first official confirmation there would not be frictionless trade for goods moving between the EU and UK, regardless of the outcome of crunch trade talks.
Gove said it would mean companies importing to and exporting from Europe would have to submit to customs declarations and goods checks. He warned there would be no repeat of the proposed easing of border controls that had been promised in last year’s countdowns to a potential no-deal Brexit.
The former Defra boss argued companies now had “time to prepare” for the 31 December deadline, as he repeated recent warnings that the government planned to move away from regulatory alignment with the EU.
However, food and drink industry leaders warned the new barriers risked major disruption and food shortages, especially of fresh food.
“The government will need to move fast,” said BRC director of food and sustainability Andrew Opie.
“Without the necessary infrastructure up and running from day one, consumers in the UK will see significant disruption, particularly in the availability of fresh fruit & vegetables.”
Opie added: “The government needs to establish import and export processes along with necessary infrastructure capable of conducting checks on rules of origin, SPS, VAT and more.
“Staff will need to be hired and trained to carry out these checks on the thousands of lorries that enter the UK every day.
“IT systems must be adapted and tested. Holding facilities for lorries, particularly at Dover and Folkestone, will need to be constructed. It is not enough to announce checks will take place, we must see plans now as to how this will be possible in practice, or it will be consumers who suffer on 1 January.”
The call was echoed by the FDF. “Time is of the essence to deliver these very ambitious plans,” said a spokesman.
“The government must lead the way and proceed at pace with building vital infrastructure at the ports, and ensure regulators such as the FSA are appropriately resourced.”
He added: “Adding any additional friction into the UK-EU trading relationship will inevitably have a cost for businesses, consumers and shoppers. We are discussing with government how we might minimise that friction wherever possible, while maintaining high standards for UK food and drink.”
Gove is understood to have told haulage bosses it will take until 2025 for the ports to operate smoothly, due to the extent of the infrastructure needed.
However, FTA UK policy director Elizabeth de Jong said his announcement had provided “much-needed clarity” for logistics operators.
“His assertion that there will be no extension to the transition period gives businesses a finite deadline to which to work,” she said.
“It is encouraging for industry that he said he does not underestimate what needs to be done and that he has his civil servants focused on capturing and providing industry with the details we need, we hope within the timeframes we need to prepare.”
But she added: “We are naturally disappointed that the promise of frictionless trade has been replaced with a promise that trade will be as seamless as possible but not until 2025, with a more realistic but costly ‘make do and mend’ approach to be employed until then. Industry will need the support of government during this period.”
Richard Ballantyne, CEO of the British Ports Association, told The Grocer: “It’s a very clear message from government that it is going to be quite a friction-related Brexit. Gove confirmed it is either a Canada-plus model or it’s an Australia model. For us at the ports that means full customs controls either way.
“Gove was clear there will be a physical process for customs declarations.
“Some of the things industry hears it may not like the sound of, but we do welcome a bit of clarity and it is a change from having previous administrations who were reluctant to say exactly what it’s going to be.
“The big caveat is that it is going to be quite difficult to get all this in place. But they’re on to it now so there’s no turning back.”
Gove said: “The UK will be outside the single market and outside the customs union, so we will have to be ready for the customs procedures and regulatory checks that will inevitably follow.
“As a result of that we will be in a stronger position, not just to make sure that our economy succeeds outside the European Union, but that we are in a position to take advantage of new trading relationships with the rest of the world.”