Anxious Vets Warn Scrapping Post-Brexit Checks Will Expose The UK To Disease
6 min read
UK vets have demanded a meeting with Jacob Rees-Mogg to warn that the government's decision to scrap a range of post-Brexit checks on goods coming in from the European Union will remove the UK's "first line of defence against disease coming into the country”.
Leaders at the British Veterinary Association (BVA) are so alarmed by the move that they wrote to Jacob Rees-Mogg on Friday asking for an urgent meeting with the minister to discuss the policy and its implications.
BVA President James Russell told PoliticsHome that his organisation, which represents nearly 20,000 vets across the UK, had received "no communication" from Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson's minister for Brexit opportunities, prior to the government announcing the decision on Thursday morning, and "minimal communication from Department for International Trade (DIT)".
On a trip to the Eurotunnel in Kent on Thursday, Rees-Mogg confirmed that the UK’s original plan to introduce physical inspections on fresh food, animals and plants being imported from the continent on 1st July had been scrapped. These checks had already been delayed three times since the UK left the EU.
Instead, ministers want to introduce an "improved" border regime in late 2023, based on digitised import checks, which they hope will render the vast majority of physical inspections unnecessary.
The government conceded that going ahead with the post-Brexit paperwork would exacerbate the cost of living crisis by making everyday supermarket items more expensive. The paperwork would have made it more costly for European businesses to send products to the UK, leading to higher prices in British shops.
The move was welcomed by industry groups like the Food & Drink Federation, Cold Chain Federation and British Chambers of Commerce. They said that supply chains were already under great strain from inflation, rising energy bills and the effects of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
But among those strongly opposed to the decision to delay checks was the BVA, which warned that allowing livestock to enter without sufficient checks would put the UK at risk of importing infectious diseases from abroad like the African swine flu, which Russell said is "now endemic among wildlife in parts of mainland Europe".
“We point to the devastating impact that African swine fever had in China in recent years," he said.
"Just look at the cost to the public purse the outbreak of foot and mouth disease had in 2001. We are not talking peanuts, it’s a significant economic risk in addition to the risk to animal welfare”.
When PoliticsHome asked Rees-Mogg about these warnings on Thursday, he sought to play down the threat posed to biosecurity by doing away with the physical checks on animal and plant goods.
"Why does a fish finger need an ID?" he said.
"If you’ve got a packet of cheese, and it is sealed and wrapped in cellophane, why do you need a vet to look at it? What’s the vet going to say? A lot of safety checks were completely irrelevant and it’s always been an EU approach that was designed to protect EU markets".
The minister said that the government has the power to carry out checks on an "intelligence-led basis" when "there’s something you’re worried about".
Russell said the minister's response "misses the point about what we’re doing with those checks".
"This is about knowing what’s coming in and their provenance," he told PoliticsHome.
“At best, [importing an infectious disease] would damage our farming sector, but at worst it would risk our food security and may be the next disease that jumps between species as we saw with Covid. Why would we think that it’s ok to do without those reassurances?”
A government source told PoliticsHome that warnings about risks to biosecurity was one of the points raised in Cabinet discussions about whether to scrap the 1 July checks, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in particular expressing concern.
Another was the unlevel playing field argument: by not implementing the checks, ministers are giving EU traders a competitive advantage over those at home by allowing them to export to the UK with low friction, while British exporters to the EU face the full panoply of paperwork.
Anand Menon, Director at the UK In A Changing Europe think tank, said the fact that EU businesses would find it easier to export to the UK than vice versa was "curious to say the least".
“It’s very, very ironic given that while a lot of Brexiters talked about Brexit in terms of a trade imbalance, what we have now is a situation where life is a lot harder for UK exporters to the EU, than it is for EU exporters to the UK," Menon said on Friday.
Rees-Mogg has rejected that argument, however, insisting that the bloc's decision to carry out checks on goods entering its markets from the UK – a trade barrier created by Brexit – was an "act of self harm" carried out by a "protectionist racket".
“That the EU kicks its consumers in the shins on a daily basis does not mean the British government should kick its own consumers in the shins," he told PoliticsHome.
Research published this week by the London School of Economics found that a sharp fall in UK exports to the EU caused UK-EU buyer-seller relationships to fall by a third after the post-Brexit trade deal was implemented. It is among a growing body of evidence showing how Brexit has adversely impacted British exporters to Europe, particularly small and independent traders.
Rees-Mogg also acknowledged that port authorities had spent significant amounts of money on developing the facilities required to carry out the 1st July checks, and that the government had spent taxpayer money preparing the country's borders for those post-Brexit controls.
Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association (BPA), told The Guardian that ministers were "wasting millions of pounds of public and private funding", with the border infrastructure which port authorities rushed to complete, "effectively becoming white elephants".
Laurence Dettman, the chief port health officer at the Port of Hull, where plans had been in place to hire additional 20 people to manage to increased import workload, told The Hull Daily Mail that the government announcement this week was "deeply worrying" to ports like his that had "invested heavily in their preparedness in meeting government expectations".
But rather than shy away from the announcement, Rees-Mogg was keen to celebrate it as he was shown around the Eurotunnel complex on Thursday wearing an orange high-vis jacket.
He told PoliticsHome scrapping checks was a benefit of Brexit, not a failure of it, and one of many the "freedoms" that he would unlock as the government tries to demonstrate how leaving the EU has benefited the country.
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