Environment minister George Eustice has insisted Britain has “a very high level of readiness” for the imposition of physical checks on imports from the European Union in July, despite worries that Wales’ ports could struggle with goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Speaking this week at an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee hearing into the UK’s post-Brexit system of checks on EU-sourced goods, Eustice said the government had “done a lot of planning” ahead of the 1 July deadline. He added that were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, the oft-delayed checks would have been in place last year.
At the same hearing, British Ports Association CEO Richard Ballantyne told MPs he was “fairly confident that everything will be ready and designated”, including “physical infrastructure” but cautioned “others may have a view on staffing”.
However, BRC director Andrew Opie warned that Welsh ports – which along with Liverpool are the main entry points for eastbound goods crossing the Irish Sea – “do not have the infrastructure set up currently to hold vehicles to do the physical checks and inspections that are required from July” and would have to operate from “temporary facilities”.
His concerns were shared by FDF CEO Karen Betts, who said that while her members were “gearing up” for the July deadline, there were concerns whether Holyhead and Fishguard would be ready.
Plans for a £45m border post near Holyhead port on Anglesey only received planning permission from local councillors this week. Eustice conceded that Wales would not have permanent infrastructure on the island (and on a second post in Pembrokeshire) until 2023 at least.
“On an interim basis, they will be doing some limited checks with temporary facilities at Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke,” he suggested.
And for goods coming from the rest of the EU, importers were saying it was vital that Dover and Folkestone be prioritised due to the volume of what Opie labelled “highly perishable fruit and vegetables” entering those ports from the continent.
Britain began a phased implementation of controls on EU goods on 1 January after a year of checks on exports heading the other way, with the island of Ireland given a temporary exemption.
Eustice said the exemption would only apply to goods from Northern Ireland after the July expansion to physical checks from the limited controls in place since January.
So far the controls, which the committee heard were mostly based on ”pre-notification”, had functioned “very smoothly”, Eustice claimed.
Opie added the system was “fine” but cautioned it remained “a very simplistic process at the moment”.
Before this week’s hearing, Nick Allen of the British Meat Processors Association said “so far this year it has gone fairly smoothly, both on the importing and exporting sides, but we’ll see how it goes once they start physical checks”.
Meanwhile, Soil Association trade relations manager Lee Holdstock told The Grocer that the “potential for disruption to supply of organic raw material” after 1 July was “significant”.
And Ben Robinson, head of purchasing at the Fine Cheese Co, said “real problems will start from 1 July when all meat, dairy and fish will need a health certificate”.
Brussels in January introduced a new set of health certficates for goods entering the EU, which British dairy and fish exporters have criticised.
Eustice said the new paperwork was “not really designed for the volume of trade that would take place between the UK and the European Union, as very close neighbours” but implied that tensions around the Northern Ireland Protocol had delayed discussions about the certs.
Food and farming exporters have said the matter could be obviated if the UK and EU signed a veterinary agreement.