A leader of the UK’s food and drink industry has warned of confusion and chaos after the Brexit transition period, branding trading arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland a complete shambles.
Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, also highlighted results from a survey showing that four in 10 companies (43 per cent) that supplied Northern Ireland would not do so in the first three months of 2021.
As Brussels and London continue attempts to thrash out a UK-EU trading partnership after the expiry of the transition period on 1 January, Mr Wright said businesses had no clue as to whether they would face tariffs when trading with the bloc.
Speaking on Tuesday, Boris Johnson stressed that businesses needed to get ready for change on 1 January, as he insisted the UK would prosper mightily even if negotiators failed to strike and agreement in the coming days.
But speaking to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Mr Wright expressed his frustration, saying: “There are 14 [working] days to go, how on earth can traders prepare in this environment?”
He told MPs the impact on companies from the Covid-19 crisis was enormous: “The cumulative toll is the same as for everybody else in the country – it has been just the most enormous, difficult period both financially and mentally for our teams.
“And then to layer on top of that – Covid and Christmas – the Brexit uncertainty with just 14 working days to go, we have no clue what’s going to happen in terms of whether we do or don’t face tariffs, and that isn’t just a big imposition, it’s a binary choice as to whether you do business in most cases.
“My members will not know whether they are exporting their products after 1 January or whether they’ll be able to afford to import them and the charge the price the tariff dictates.”
He said the situation with Northern Ireland was even worse, with goods travelling from the British mainland subject to new customs and health checks under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol signed by the prime minister in 2019.
These measures are required for any goods which could enter the EU by crossing the border into the Republic of Ireland after the Brexit transition period and when Britain ends its membership of the single market and customs union.
Mr Wright said: “The Northern Ireland Protocol is a complete shambles and the idea you can prepare for something as big as the change that’s is going to happen… is ridiculous.
“It is a massive toll. Financially it’s a big imposition, but I think the bigger concern is the level of confusion and chaos we potentially face.”
On preparations for goods travelling to Northern Ireland from Welsh ports, he later said: “Only yesterday morning – I’m not criticising the Welsh government – but only yesterday morning were the arrangements announced for the traffic flows at Holyhead.
“Well, there’s only 15 days to go. I don’t want to be trivial about it, but it’s too late baby… it’s really too late. All of these arrangements are just too late for people to prepare.”
“The consequence of that is that our members are saying it’s too risky, I don’t know whether I’ll be participating in Northern Ireland in the market where there could be tariffs for example and we don’t know what the checks will involve, we’ll stay out for the first two weeks, three months, whatever it is. And that of course restricts the choice of Northern Ireland shoppers.”
Darren Jones, the chair of the committee, said: “During our evidence hearing this morning, we heard of the significant challenges which businesses are facing in dealing with the impact of Covid 19 and in preparing for the end of the transition period.
“While Britain’s businesses are hoping that a Brexit deal will be reached, companies across many sectors will face disruption from 1 January.
“Our industry witnesses this morning were unanimous in wanting clarity from a UK-EU deal, on crucial areas such as ‘rules of origin’. It was also made clear that businesses will need time to adjust to any deal and that there should be pragmatism on both UK and EU sides to ensure disruption is minimised and trade continues to flow”.
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