Dangerous pests and diseases could flood Britain’s shores after Brexit, according to a new House of Lords report, which warns the country may be left with limited capacity to defend itself from invasive species.
Biosecurity hazards are a constant concern for British agriculture and wildlife, with hundreds of threats intercepted at the border each year.
Infections transmitted from abroad such as hand-foot-and-mouth and Dutch elm disease have cost the country billions, and alien species like signal crayfish and grey squirrels are contributing to the decline of native animals and plants.
As it stands, the UK benefits from an EU-wide regulation to repel these invaders, with intelligence gathering, disease alerts and research all being undertaken at an European scale.
After Brexit, the UK will no longer automatically be part of this system, and in their report the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Committee has urged the government to maintain as close a relationship with the EU on biosecurity as possible.
Though the Lords also noted that Brexit could provide an opportunity to implement stricter and more UK-specific checks, they said it is unlikely a replacement system will be in place before the exit date in March. This is especially concerning in the case of a no-deal scenario.
They also noted that stricter rules would create barriers to the free flow of goods when additional checks are imposed at the borders, and warned that ministers must not be tempted to compromise biosecurity in order to obtain trade deals.
“The existing arrangements are far from perfect but significant gaps will be created when the UK leaves them,” said committee chairman Lord Teverson.
“We rely on the EU for everything from auditing plant nurseries and farms to funding our research laboratories.
“The UK government has a huge amount of work to do to replace this system in time for Brexit, and failure to do so could have an economic and environmental impact that would be felt for decades to come.”
The report draws on evidence submitted by a variety of expert groups, government departments and NGOs.
Among particular areas of concern flagged were the capacity of the UK veterinary sector to cope with disease controls, access to funding for relevant research and the ability to enforce laws meant to preserve biosecurity.
Dr Paul Walton, who heads up the invasive species group at environmental coalition Wildlife and Countryside Link and said he was glad the committee shared the concerns he had raised.
“The risks to our economy and wildlife from invasive non-native species are already intensifying due to climate change and the globalisation of trade. They are set to further increase with new post-Brexit trade routes,” he told The Independent.
“Invasive species alone already cost the UK economy at least £1.7bn per year, so it is essential that the government averts this significant post-Brexit threat by not only ensuring access to current EU protection systems, but by further strengthening them.”
The peers noted that it may be possible for the UK to respond more quickly to biosecurity threats by itself, rather than waiting on the remaining EU member states to come to a decision.
A spokesperson from the Royal Horticultural Society noted in the Lords’ report that “the most obvious positive step for legislative change is to prioritise UK biosecurity activities to UK, rather than EU needs”.
The committee suggested Australia and New Zealand as examples of island nations with strong biosecurity that the UK could model itself on once it had left the EU.
However, they concluded that “significant work” remains to ensure the UK has replacement laws, along with the “monitoring, inspection and enforcement mechanisms, staff and IT systems to support it”.
Lord Teverson said that past outbreaks of diseases imported from overseas had killed millions of animals and trees, with new fears on the horizon including ash dieback and African swine fever.
“These examples highlight just how important biosecurity is, and the devastating impact that animal and plant diseases can have,” he said.
Responding to the report, a spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the UK’s ability to protect against these threats would not be compromised and the country would not stop sharing biosecurity information with Europe.
“All countries that are members of the World Organisation for Animal Health are required to report any listed animal disease within 24 hours of a disease being confirmed. We will also remain part of plant information-sharing networks, such as European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisation,” they said.
“Within Defra we have taken a number of steps to maintain our high biosecurity standards post March 2019. This includes working with the industry to make sure the necessary numbers of vets are in place.
“We will formally respond to this report in due course.”
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