Government Winds Down Food Supply Group Despite Industry Worry Over Brexit
The government decision to relax a group set up to protect the country's food supplies during the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit has concerned industry figures who say ministers risk shifting to a "business as usual" mode too soon.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) set up the Food Resilience Industry Forum (Frif) at the onset of the pandemic early last year in response to a huge surge in demand for groceries caused by the closure of hospitality businesses.
The group, whose participants include senior ministers, government officials, supermarket bosses and trade groups, also focused on issues created by the UK's divorce from the European Union.
Frif has met on a weekly basis for the past year but Defra has confirmed to PoliticsHome that from next week it will meet once every three months to discuss "topical issues".
“The Food Resilience Industry Forum has been a successful partnership between government and industry, helping to keep the nation fed through Covid-19 and address challenges related to our exit from the EU," a Defra spokesperson said.
“As we enter the next phase, we will continue to work in partnership with industry to solve problems and tackle wider strategic challenges through a range of channels".
The decision comes amid a belief in government that the UK trade is starting to return to normal as lockdown restrictions are eased and businesses adapt to post-Brexit rules and regulations.
However, numerous industry figures who attend Frif meetings said they were worried that the government was relaxing prematurely, with most hospitality businesses still yet to reopen and Brexit expected to create issues for food supply chains for many months to come. The UK will start carrying out checks on imports from the EU in October and this red tape is expected to cause significant disruption. The government previously planned to introduce the checks in April but postponed them by six months to give businesses more time to prepare.
There were warnings that bringing in the paperwork in April as planned would have resulted in delays to imports of items like vegetables, cheese and wine.
As PoliticsHome reported, this week the EU introduced swathes of new rules for food products entering the bloc from the third countries like the UK, creating more bureaucracy for businesses.
"It is odd to stop now given the issues with composite trade have just started and preparation is going into the import checks in October," one Frif attendee told PoliticsHome. Another said the timing of the move "wasn't ideal" and that there was "unease" among some industry figures.
Andrew Kuyk, director general of the Provisions Trade Association, said he was worried that winding down Frif would make it harder for government to react to urgent issues that arise.
"Frif is led by Defra but it was able to get high-level input from other government departments," he said. “What it was good at was getting urgent issues escalated very quickly and if we don’t have senior representation on calls on a regular basis, will that happen in the same way?
“We are approaching something like business as usual, but we are not there yet”.
Another industry figure said they were particularly concerned about how it could impact UK readiness for the import checks being phased in in October, telling PoliticsHome: "There is little evidence of significant preparation happening around that".
A government source said Frif had been a "really successful partnership" and that ministers are "reviewing the most valued aspects to make sure we carry those aspects forward".