Boris Johnson has admitted there are “teething problems” in the post-Brexit trade relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as industry experts warned there could be fresh shortages on supermarket shelves.
Retailers warned that shops in Northern Ireland could face further problems unless the EU is prepared to extend the “grace period” in the Brexit agreement.
British Retail Consortium director Andrew Opie said problems which had resulted in a shortage of some food products following the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31 had largely been overcome.
But he said there could be fresh difficulties in April when a series of exemptions on goods being moved to Northern Ireland from Great Britain comes to an end.
Mr Johnson told MPs on the UK Commons Liaison Committee: “The situation in Northern Ireland is that trade is flowing smoothly, as I understand it.
“And exporters are benefiting from the unfettered access between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“Yes, I am not going to deny down that there are teething problems, and there are issues that we need to sort out… but the deal has been of great, great assistance to our businesses in smoothing this.”
He said the Government would invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol – which allows it to unilaterally impose safeguards – if serious issues arise.
“What I can certainly guarantee is that if there are serious problems in… supplying supermarkets in Northern Ireland because of some piece of bureaucracy that’s misapplied, then we will simply exercise Article 16 of the protocol.
“It is absurd that there should be such difficulties.”
Earlier Mr Opie warned MPs that “if we do not find a workable solution for retailers in the next couple of months we do face significant disruption in Northern Ireland”.
He told the UK Commons Brexit Committee that supermarkets which exported to the Republic of Ireland had found the system was “unworkable” as far as their supply chains were concerned.
“That is why we need to think about Northern Ireland. We should not just be trying to apply the same processes that apply to the EU into Great Britain-Northern Ireland,” he said.
“Sending a lasagne from Great Britain to the Republic of Ireland is so complicated. You have to have authorisation going up through the chain, the vet at the end has to sign it off and he has to see all the authorisations.”
Controls on goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK are required under the terms of the Brexit settlement agreed by Mr Johnson, to ensure there is no return to a hard border with the Republic.
Food and Drink Federation chief executive Ian Wright warned that without changes to the deals, the industry would have to rethink all its supply routes, leading to increased costs and delays.
“Unless the deal changes in some material way we are going to see the re-engineering of almost all the EU-UK and GB-NI supply chains over the next six months,” he said.
He said that one international supplier had found that the paperwork for a consignment moving from the UK to the EU which would normally have taken three hours to complete had so far taken five days – and they were still working on it.
Mr Wright also expressed concern about the potential for delays at the Channel ports as the numbers of lorries making the crossing picked up over the coming months.
“It will get worse. Currently volumes across the short straits are at about 2,000 lorries. They should be around 10,000. So the opportunity for the scale of concerns to rise is huge,” he said.
Mr Opie also issued a warning over disruption to goods crossing the Channel, saying “it will get worse before it gets better”.
He said he is on watch for any impact this week and onwards, with British businesses “still not 100% prepared” for the changes as the French step up customs checks.
“So we are anticipating problems. We’re hoping that they will be relatively minor and consumers don’t notice a difference,” Mr Opie told the MPs.
“This is our peak import season and I couldn’t stress this is probably the worst time of the year to try and manage disruption on the short straits.”