The haulage sector in Northern Ireland has appealed for an easing of new post-Brexit checks amid a drop-off in trade.
A number of haulage operators appeared before a Stormont committee just weeks into a new era of mandatory customs declarations for most commercial goods arriving in the region from Great Britain.
Concerns were also raised about the “competency” of some of the newly trained customs agents.
John Martin, from the Road Haulage Association (RHA), claimed some agents were “not competent to do the job”.
“They’ve been recruited towards the latter part of last year and there’s been insufficient time to enable those staff to be trained,” he told the Stormont Infrastructure Committee.
Chris Slowey, managing director of Manfreight, said members of his team were trying to learn from people who had only been in the job for 20 days.
He also recalled the first day of the new arrangements.
“We were the first vehicle off the ferries on January 1 in Northern Ireland, and we were the first vehicle stopped. Why we were stopped, we’re not quite sure,” he told MLAs.
His firm exports fresh produce from Northern Ireland, and brings back retail and parcels.
“We have seen a drop-off today of about 100 loads per week, that impacts on our bottom line directly to a value which makes the business unstable,” he said.
Paul Jackson of McBurney Transport said in 40 years of working in haulage, this had been the worst period he had seen, with the joint impact of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.
He said movements were 24% down on January 2020, and stated they were running out of trailers, with the cost of transporting empty trailers back in Northern Ireland.
“I can remember customs entries in 1980 … this is worse, this is much worse. We’re back to the Dark Ages,” he said.
“This is the most over-legislated, over-taxed industry in Northern Ireland here, and we are struggling.”
Seamus Leheny, of Logistics UK, said operators needed a grace period on checks as well as long-term solutions.
Moving mixed loads of food products, known as groupage, had proved to be the most challenging in terms of the new checks.
Mr Leheny told the committee that a new system to ease the difficulties had had a successful first test on a load from Liverpool to Belfast on Wednesday morning.
Meanwhile, the committee also heard a warning that speculation around shortages of goods had sparked “overbuying”, with many consumers appearing to be stocking up on mince.
But Aodhan Connolly, of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, stressed there were no major supply issues, describing it as choice issues which were down to more than simply the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“There have been some choice issues but this has to be kept in context. The average large supermarket will have from 40,000 to 50,000 product lines, there’s only ever been a few hundred missing, and that picture is getting better,” he told the committee.
“We have seen in the past lockdown, people buy stuff that they can cook at home and freeze, and they stock up. So for example, so far in January, we’ve got a 30% uplift in the amounts of mince that people are buying.”
Mr Connolly said comments that the supply chain was “days away from collapse” were not helpful.
“The supply chain was not and has never been a few days away from collapse, and I think that needs underlined,” he said.