The UK government is considering postponing the introduction of border checks on imports from the European Union to reduce the risk of disruption to supply chains this summer.
David Frost, the minister who negotiated the Brexit trade deal with the EU and is now leading the UK’s relations with the bloc, has asked officials to review the timetable of the new border paperwork requirements, which are due to start from April 1, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Britain has so far taken a light-touch approach to imports from the EU since Brexit, waiving customs requirements and allowing goods to enter freely. In contrast, the EU imposed full border controls on trade going the other way on January 1, causing delays to shipments and a decline in freight volumes.
Yet the UK’s lax stance is due to expire within weeks: From April, food products will require extra forms to enter the UK from the EU. And then, from July 1, stricter border inspections plus further documents for all EU imports are scheduled to begin.
The extra trade burden is due to coincide with the re-opening of Britain’s hospitality sector as lockdown restrictions ease, when demand for food and drink is expected to surge. About 80% of imported food in Britain’s supermarkets comes from the EU, according to the British Retail Consortium.
Food has been one of the industries worst-hit by the post-Brexit trade deal, with exports ranging from fish to meat held up and spoiling because they lack the correct paperwork.
“We will continue to work with business groups and the haulage industry to help them adapt to the new checks and new arrangements that are going to be put in place,” said Jamie Davies, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, on a call with reporters on Monday.
Another problem for Johnson’s government is that much of the physical infrastructure to conduct the post-Brexit import checks is not ready. Many ports won’t have built their facilities in time for handling inspections of food products for the July 1 deadline, said Richard Ballantyne, chief executive officer of the British Ports Association, in a phone interview.
Separately, the UK is facing legal action from the EU after unilaterally changing trade rules affecting Northern Ireland, going beyond what was agreed in their post-Brexit accord. The British government has extended a grace period for the introduction of export documents on food crossing from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland which was due to lapse on April 1. The requirements will now start from October 1.