Ministers intend to relax post-Brexit border check plans for food and other imports from the European Union because of fears they could cause severe shortages on UK supermarket shelves.
Lord Frost, Boris Johnson’s Brexit minister, is reportedly considering allowing “lighter touch” controls on imports from 1 April, scaling back plans for full customs checks – including physical inspections – which are due to start on 1 July.
One source told the Observer that Frost was preparing to put the plans before fellow cabinet ministers this week, even though it could mean imports being allowed even if clerical errors have been made by European companies, with mounting evidence of how hard Brexit has hit trade with the EU.
French exports to the UK plummeted by 13 per cent in January compared to the average of the previous six months and French imports from the UK fell by 20 per cent, the French customs office said.
The figures are in sharp contrast with the volume of French exports and imports from other countries – which rose in January compared with the previous month, the Financial Times reported, in a sign that the barriers and uncertainty thrown up by Brexit have significantly impacted commercial activity between the UK and the EU, its largest trading partner.
Johnson’s trade deal avoided tariffs on most goods – but trade has still been disrupted by higher shipping costs, transport delays, health certificate rules and more complex customs requirements. Some tariffs are still in place on some goods that are imported into the UK and then re-exported to the EU.
German exports also tumbled in January, down roughly 30 per cent year-on-year – accelerating a decline in trade between the two countries since the Brexit referendum in 2016, figures released this week reveal.
Last month Italy reported a 38 per cent year-on-year drop in exports to the UK and a 70 per cent drop in British imports in January, among the steepest declines compared with other European nations.
Despite efforts by the Cabinet Office, led by Michael Gove, to downplay the effects of Brexit on trade, a survey last week by the Food and Drink Federation of its members that send goods to the continent found a 45 per cent drop in exports since 1 January.
One senior industry figure said: “The worry is that if we go ahead with more checks and move to checks on imports, then exporters will not be prepared and on this side we are not ready for that either. There is not the infrastructure in place yet or the number of customs officials necessary to carry all this out. We have already seen exports badly affected. The next nightmare could be imports.”
The UK has unilaterally sought to ease aspects of the Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland in recent days, acting to address another element of the controversial rules governing trade on Friday night.
A ban on importing plants potted in soil from Great Britain to the region has been temporarily lifted. While most agri-food goods are, or will be, subject to extra regulatory processes to enter Northern Ireland under the terms of Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, some have been banned altogether.
That prohibited list includes plants or vegetables potted in British soil or with traces of soil still attached to them. This has caused problems for many businesses in Northern Ireland, particularly garden centres.
It has become somewhat of a touchstone issue in the public debate over the merits of the protocol, with its critics citing the ban on pot plants as evidence of excessive and disproportionate bureaucracy.
The move comes in a week when London has also unilaterally extended grace periods that currently limit regulatory checks on imports of agri-food retail goods and customs declarations on GB parcels sent to the region.
The European Commission is taking legal action against the government for those moves, accusing it of breaching the protocol.