The UK’s largest supermarkets have warned the government of a “major disruption of food supplies” in Northern Ireland due to “unworkable” border arrangements after Brexit.
Many supermarkets in the region have already been hit with rows of empty shelves due to the new border regime.
But in a letter to Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove, CEOs of companies including Sainsbury, Marks and Spencer and Tesco UK warned that the shortages would worsen when a Brexit grace period, which exempted retailers of some painful red tape, will end on March 31.
Supermarkets have urged the government to take “a number of steps to work with us to ensure the long term sustainability of the grocery market in Northern Ireland”.
Retailers have also called on the government to enter into an ‘open discussion’ with the EU as to why the implementation of the Irish protocol was ‘impractical’ within the current deadline, raising the prospect of difficult negotiations with Brussels within weeks. penalty after the agreement of the agreement.
The protocol, accepted by the UK and the EU to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, means the region remains under EU internal market controls. New administrative formalities are now required to ship from Great Britain, especially for products of animal origin.
The border arrangements, along with the new bureaucracy and the need for certification “in such a short timeframe is unachievable,” the supermarket chains wrote in the letter, which was seen by the Financial Times. The six companies account for most of the retail food sales in Northern Ireland.
Retailers said the end of the grace period would create more problems for shipping products to the region. In fact, export health certificates signed by a veterinarian would then be necessary for all products derived from animals such as meat, poultry, milk and eggs.
The letter said it was “essential to find a long-term solution, agreed with the EU”, before the end of the grace period. “We cannot stress enough that we need time to find and implement this solution.”
The letter was signed by Simon Roberts, Managing Director of Sainsbury, and Steve Rowe, Managing Director of M&S. Jason Tarry, Director of Tesco UK; Roger Burnley, Managing Director of Asda; Richard Walker, Managing Director of Iceland Foods; Jo Whitfield, Chief Food Officer at The Co-operative Group; and Helen Dickinson, Managing Director of the British Retail Consortium, also signed.
Retailers said the government must tell its EU counterparts that border changes after April would not be possible – and devise new plans to help keep products and goods flowing.
In the letter, retailers called for a dedicated Cabinet Office group to coordinate the government’s response and create a system that integrates customs and food controls. They offered to help their teams develop solutions to meet the challenges of operating a just-in-time supply chain.
A government spokesperson said: “A new dedicated government team has already been put in place and will work with supermarkets, the food industry and the Northern Ireland executive to develop ways to streamline the movement of goods. merchandise.
The spokesman said this was done in accordance with Irish protocol, adding: ‘The grace period for supermarkets and their suppliers is working well, goods continue to flow efficiently between Britain and Northern Ireland and us. work intensively with the industry as new requirements. Come in.”
Pressure groups in the region have pointed out that discretionary incomes in Northern Ireland are already far lower than in other countries in the UK and that any sustained increase in food prices could have serious societal impacts.
Supermarket managers have resorted to unconventional measures to ease the difficulties. M&S has discontinued several hundred product lines in area stores, while Sainsbury’s sells Spar products from Ireland to avoid shelf gaps.
The issue of additional bureaucracy is separate from the issue of tariffs on products shipped from the UK to stores in Ireland. Mr Rowe last week cited the example of M & S’s Percy Pig candies, which are made in Germany but exported to Ireland through a UK distribution center. Because they fall under the blow of the rules of origin set out in the EU-UK trade agreement, they are subject to additional tariffs.
The agreements under the protocol do not cover companies that ship food products to wholesalers or to the restaurant and service industry, leading transport groups to warn that customers outside the retail system find the doubly impracticable agreements.
Peter Summerton, managing director of McCulla Ireland, a large Irish carrier, said shipping products outside retail systems were struggling with supplies.
“If Northern Ireland was not currently stranded due to Covid, the restaurant and hotel industry would face serious problems sourcing from Britain,” he said. declared. “There are obvious shortcomings in the model and the Road Haulage Association has warned [the UK environment and food ministry] Defra of these problems since last fall.