UK supermarket chains have demanded government intervention to prevent “unworkable” new Brexit regulations causing disruption to food supplies to Northern Ireland.
The chief executives of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Iceland, Co-op and Marks & Spencer have written to Cabinet office minister Michael Gove warning that enforcement of new procedures when a grace period expires on 31 March risks a “cliff-edge” for businesses and consumers.
Goods sent to Northern Ireland from England, Wales and Scotland are subject to new procedures as a result of the Brexit deal, which imposed a customs border in the Irish Sea to allow the region to remain in the EU single market for goods.
This requires EU customs rules to be applied at Northern Ireland’s ports, including export declarations for goods imported from GB, and export health certificates for animal-based food products.
The new procedures have been blamed for depleted shelves in supermarkets, despite a grace period agreed between the EU and the UK applying for the first three months of the year, to prevent a sudden shock to the flow of trade.
In the letter, also signed by the British Retail Consortium, the supermarket bosses say: “All our businesses and suppliers have invested significantly in the last few months to avoid disruption but that will become inevitable if the proposals governing movement of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are adopted.
“We recognise the European Commission needs to see increased compliance to support the concessions it granted through the Northern Ireland protocol but the current proposals, increased bureaucracy and certification in such a short timescale, are unworkable.”
The supermarkets’ concern came as prominent Brexiteer Baroness Hoey accused the government of “betraying” Northern Ireland.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph she said: “The Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, who has repeatedly stated that there is no trade border down the Irish Sea, puts in mind the joke about the Emperor with no clothes.
“Disappointment among Unionists at the involvement of Michael Gove, once seen as the standard bearer for friends of the Union, is turning to anger. It is apparent that he has not guarded their interests. The constitutional position of Northern Ireland has changed despite not a single citizen having a say.
“There is a major economic barrier in the Irish Sea which each day sees more lorries being held up as they have the wrong documents.
“Many Britain-based firms are refusing to send goods to Northern Ireland at all because of the paperwork and expense. So it is really becoming a place apart”.
A UK government spokesperson said it was working with the supermarkets to streamline processes.