Northern Ireland Secretary Claims Food Supply Issues Have Been Caused By Covid, Not Brexit
Northern Ireland has experienced food shortages since January
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has claimed disruption to food supplies have mainly been triggered by the Covid crisis, rather than Brexit.
Several major supermarkets in Northern Ireland have experienced disruption to supplies since the start of the year, with hauliers claiming they have been "overwhelmed" with paperwork due to new checks put in place since the Brexit deal came into force on 1 January.
Some retailers, including M&S, have already been forced to drop several hundred product lines from their stores in Northern Ireland, while other supermarkets have resorted to selling products sourced from competitors in Ireland.
Ministers have rejected suggestions that problems with the government's Brexit deal are to blame for growing food shortages in Northern Ireland, claiming instead that the country was facing "knock-on" effects of impact of the pandemic on supply chains.
It comes after the UK's largest supermarkets warned earlier this month that the government's "unworkable" post-Brexit border arrangements could lead to "significant disruption food supplies" unless urgent action was taken.
As part of the deal struck with the EU, Northern Ireland has been forced to operate different regulatory and customs checks to the rest of the UK, with EU customs rules being enforced at its ports.
All goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are subject to the checks and processes required by the EU, with lorry firms saying the added red tape is leading to delays and disruption.
Further checks on goods, especially animal products, are set to come into force from 31 March after a grace period agreed between the two sides to allow retailers time to prepare comes to an end.
In a letter to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove earlier this month, major supermarket brands, including Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury's said it as "essential we find a long-term solution, agreed with the EU", of the March deadline.
They added: "We cannot stress enough that we need time to find and implement that solution."
But responding to the concerns, Mr Lewis dismissed the suggestion that food shortages were due to the new protocol, saying that the disruption was instead caused by the impact of coronavirus.
The Cabinet minister claimed that problems at the port of Dover, which saw thousands of hauliers unable to leave the UK in December until they had received a negative Covid test, had a knock-on effect on food supplies around the entire country.
"Some of the challenges we have seen in Northern Ireland the first few days in January were not because of the protocol necessarily," he told Times Radio.
"There were a few companies who made decisions before the deal was done and their supply lines are now coming back as they realise they can supply in the way they did in November, let alone in December.
"There are challenges in Northern Ireland, like we have seen in some other parts of the UK, I know Wales have had some supply line issues with food as well, which are not related to the EU issues but are related to Covid.
"Particularly those challenges we have had at Dover around access due to Covid through the Dover Straights and that has had some knock on effect in terms of supply."
Meawhile, Mr Lewis said that firms in Northern Ireland were already adapting to the new Brexit rules and insisted supplies were not "being held up or prevented from moving across".
"But the supply lines going through are generally fast moving. They are good, there are no vehicles being held up or prevented from moving across," he added.
"As things settle down now we are moving into mid-January and people have seen the deal and had a chance to look at the guidance, things are flowing through well.
"The bigger challenge we have across the UK, and Northern Ireland suffers from this, is supply lines because of some of the Covid issues that we saw in Dover just before Christmas."
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