‘Urgent’ help needed to ensure supply to North, UK supermarkets warn

Food retailers struggle to import fresh goods with some shelves empty since start of year

Depleted shelves in Marks & Spencer at Donegall Place in Belfast as major retailers in Northern Ireland continue to experience Brexit-related disruption. Photograph: PA

Depleted shelves in Marks & Spencer at Donegall Place in Belfast as major retailers in Northern Ireland continue to experience Brexit-related disruption. Photograph: PA

 

Britain’s major supermarkets have warned the UK government that “urgent intervention” is required to prevent significant disruption to Northern Ireland food supplies in the coming months.

Britain is no longer part of the European Union’s single market and customs union, but the North has a foot in both camps – part of the UK’s customs territory but also still aligned with the EU’s single market for goods.

Despite a three-month grace period on some new rules, some supermarket shelves in the North have been empty since the turn of the year as firms struggle to import fresh goods from Britain.

The bosses of supermarket groups, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Marks & Spencer, have written to minister for the cabinet office Michael Gove to raise the issue.

In the letter, they note that the grace period for simplified controls on sending food to Northern Ireland ends on March 31st and said it was essential a long-term solution is agreed with the EU before then.

“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,” it said.

“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 time scale are unworkable.”

Working group

The supermarket chief executives called on Mr Gove to create a dedicated working group to co-ordinate government agencies to integrate customs and food controls.

They want the government to agree with the EU that more time is required to implement a new system.

“We accept that clear progress needs to be made by [April 1st] . . . however, until then, we need an assurance that the current process based on a trusted trader scheme . . . doesn’t change until a workable replacement is agreed,” the letter said.

The UK government said it has already set up a dedicated team to work with supermarkets trading with Northern Ireland.

“A new dedicated team in government has already been set up and will be working with supermarkets, the food industry and the Northern Ireland Executive to develop ways to streamline the movement of goods in accordance with the [Northern Ireland] protocol,” a spokeswoman said. “The grace period for supermarkets and their suppliers is working well, goods continue to flow effectively between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and we are working intensively with industry as new requirements come in.” – Reuters