Government Is Debating Whether To Delay Post-Brexit Import Checks Again
Exclusive: The government is strongly considering delaying checks on imports from the European Union again amid warnings of severe disruption to supplies in the run-up to Christmas.
The post-Brexit paperwork for imports is currently due to be phased in from October, with most of it coming in January. It was originally supposed to be introduced in April but ministers decided to delay them by six months in order to give businesses and UK ports more time to prepare.
Boris Johnson was warned at the time that introducing the checks in April would rock supplies of food just as hospitality businesses were re-opening after lockdown. The UK gets around two-thirds of its fruit, vegetables and cheese and over half of its wine from the continent, among other items.
However, PoliticsHome understands that government officials are now debating the pros and cons of delaying the introduction of checks on imports for a second time. Some industry figures are even expecting the government to announce a further delay in the next few days.
There are concerns that going ahead with the checks as planned in a few weeks' time would put further pressure on supply chains which are already being impacted by labour shortages. There is also worry that many European businesses which export to Britain will not be ready for the new paperwork.
Government sources at the time of writing stressed that the plan remained phasing in checks on EU imports from 1 October. HMRC officials told industry figures that the government's plans hadn't changed in a meeting on Tuesday, those with knowledge of the meeting told PoliticsHome.
On Monday, a Downing Street spokesperson said: "Our position remains that businesses should continue to prepare for import checks in October and January."
This was in response to Ireland's Tánaiste Leo Varadkar telling journalists that he expected the UK to delay the introduction of checks on EU imports following a meeting in London with Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
"The expectation is that the United Kingdom will announce a further extension of the grace periods, not just in relation to Northern Ireland but also imports from the EU and Ireland into the UK," Varadkar said.
A source familiar with the meeting said Varadkar had come away with "the definite sense" that the UK, whose post-Brexit affairs are led by Cabinet Office Minister Lord Frost, were preparing to delay checks on EU imports again.
A move to delay the introduction of checks on EU imports would likely be welcomed by most business groups, with supply chains already being impacted by shortages of lorry drivers, processors, pickers, and other workers. One senior industry figure said introducing the checks from October 1 would be "lunacy".
A host of household names including the Co-op, McDonald's, and Greggs have recently reported food shortages in its British stores as a result of the labour shortages, which have been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit.
Ikea last week said 10% of its product range was being affected by the dearth of HGV drivers, while a shortage of chemicals used to treat sewage has led the government to give waterplants the green light to discharge effluent that has not been fully treated.
The National Pig Association is warning that farmers might have to cull 100,000 pigs as there are currently not enough butchers working in slaughterhouses.
However, a further delay would mean European businesses that import to the UK would continue to enjoy a competitive advantage over British firms which send goods the other way.
Unlike the UK government, Brussels implemented post-Brexit checks immedately after the UK left the Single Market and Customs Union. This unleashed a wave of new paperwork on British exporters, making sending goods to the EU more difficult and costly, especially for smaller businesses.
Last week the Food & Drink Federation said the industry was £2bn worse off after a "disastrous" fall in sales to the EU this year.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe