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Government Is Considering New Delays To EU Import Checks To Avoid Food Supply Disruption

Lord David Frost/Alamy

4 min read

Exclusive: Growing concern over food supplies when shops and hospitality reopen this summer could lead the government to relax checks on European Union imports scheduled to take effect in April and July.

Officials are looking at a menu of options, including delays to paperwork like those agreed as part of the Northern Ireland Protocol, to help avoid disruption to imports as a result of red tape created by leaving the EU. 

Among the options under consideration is a plan to phase in new checks from 1 July in an approach similar to the one taken to trade across the Irish Sea under the Protocol, in order to give businesses and Britain's ports more time to prepare, PoliticsHome understands.

Another is to postpone the whole plethora of checks planned for 1 July until later in the year.

Cabinet Office Minister David Frost has asked government officials to review the current plan for introducing checks on EU imports and is expected to present their recommendations to fellow ministers this week, as The Observer reported on Sunday, potentially as soon as today.

The government's current plan, announced by Michael Gove last year, is to request Sanitary & Phytosanitary paperwork for animal and plant EU imports like meat and eggs on 1 April. 

Then three months later, on 1 July, all goods arriving into the UK from EU member states are set to face a full range of customs, security and health checks at facilities across the country.

This plan contrasts with the EU, which immediately implemented the post-Brexit rules for trade with the UK after the latter left the transition period on New Year's Eve.

This has led to severe disruption for UK exporters since 1 January, particularly those in the fish and meat sectors, with many failing to get their fresh food to buyers on the continent on time due to the mountain of new paperwork.

Some businesses have already been forced to close, while delays caused by the red tape have led European customers to cancel orders from the UK. 

There is concern that checks on EU goods will result in lengthy delays to food imports at the same time as the re-opening of pubs, restaurants, and food retailers causes demand to rocket. 

The UK gets around around two-thirds of its fruit, vegetables and cheese and over half of its wine from the EU. They are just some of the items which industry figures expect to be affected by the new red tape in next few months, PoliticsHome reported last month.

“There is lots of nervousness across industry and within government about the coronavirus recovery being knocked out of kilter this summer," an industry source familiar with the government's thinking told PoliticsHome.A number of ports have already publicly warned that they will not be ready to carry out the new import checks as scheduled and have urged the government to delay their introduction.

"It’s obvious not all of the facilities are going to be ready; how much of it will be is still up for debate," the British Port Association's Richard Ballantyne told The Observer over the weekend.

The same industry source said any government move to further postpone import checks "would be presented as pro-business but the driving force is that the ports just aren’t going to be ready”.

The government has not responded to PoliticsHome's request for comment.

The government triggered a fresh row with Brussels last week when it announced plans to unilaterally extend grace periods for trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said that the government was taking "temporary technical steps" to postpone the introduction of Export Health Certificates on agri-food goods heading into Norther Ireland from Great Britain until 1 October at the earliest. 

It is doing the same for a grace period covering parcels heading to the province from Great Britain.

Both grace periods, agreed by the UK and EU last year, were due to expire on 1 April.

Maros Sefcovic, who co-chairs the UK-EU Joint Committee with Frost, said the move was a "violation" of the Northern Ireland Protocol as it wasn't agreed with the European Commission. The EU is currently considering what legal action to take against the government.

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