British firms are warning of an escalation in Brexit red tape as the government prepares to introduce a long list of new controls on imports from the European Union in April and July.
In the coming months further checks are due to be phased in at the UK border, controlling everything from the import of sausages and live mussels to horses and trees, along with new rules on the locations these checks can take place.
One logistics firm warned the situation had “disaster written all over it”, saying businesses need more time to prepare, while accountancy firm KPMG said some of the “biggest headaches” facing traders are yet to come. Importers fear British customs are not ready for the new controls, and that logjams at points of entry could cause fruit and vegetable shortages in the spring.
Much of the focus on Brexit trade since January has been on UK exports, as the EU imposed its customs checks immediately – with hauliers reporting that the volume of exports going through British ports to the EU fell 68% last month compared with January 2020.
However, the British government chose a phased approach, postponing the introduction of certain import procedures by three to six months.
These grace periods were designed to give businesses more time to adapt to the new rules and ways of working, but many are set to expire shortly.
The next big change is due on 1 April, when British customs will begin controlling imports of animal products, including fishery produce and live bivalve molluscs such as mussels; food considered high-risk such as mince and sausages; and plants and plant products.
These checks, known as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls, mean all the correct documentation is needed for each consignment arriving in Great Britain, including import forms and health certificates signed by vets.
More changes occur in July, as traders moving goods must make their full customs declarations on entering , rather than submitting forms at a later date. In addition, imports will have to enter the UK at specific locations known as border control posts.
More changes affecting certification and regulations of items such as medical devices have been given a longer transition period, until January 2022 and the start of 2023 in some cases.
The meat processing industry is concerned about April.
“If we have as much trouble importing as we are having exporting it could be quite challenging,” said Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association.
The overwhelming majority of meat processors’ trade is with EU countries: the UK imports pork and beef from the continent, while exporting products including beef and lamb – a two-way trade worth £8.2bn a year to the British economy.
Once the grace periods end, if the paperwork accompanying a meat shipment is missing or incorrect, it cannot travel to its destination. Hold-ups at European ports because of problems with documentation for exports from the UK led to containers of British meat left rotting on the dock at Rotterdam.
“Delays cost money. If you have a lorry held up for 30 hours unexpectedly that causes a nightmare problem logistically,” Allen said. “Someone is waiting for that delivery, possibly waiting for it to go on the shelves and it is stuck on the port while someone gets the paperwork right.”
Allen warns that repeated delays could lead to the loss of business: “In time, if you consistently fail to deliver, customers start to look elsewhere.”
The prospect of empty shelves is “shocking” for artisan cheese retailer La Fromagerie. After 30 years sourcing specialist French and Italian cheeses to sell in her London stores and to UK customers online, Brexit has left Patricia Michelson facing added import taxes and duties.
“If things don’t improve I can see prices going up in April by 10% to 15%. Transporters put their price up straightaway by 15%,” Michelson said. “We will have to see if it is viable or not going forward, or not get as many cheeses as we used to.”
Since the start of the year, hauliers bringing freight from the EU into Britain have been able to complete their customs declarations up to six months after delivery. These delayed declarations are no longer allowed after June.
This could lead to big problems, warns Adam Shuter, joint managing director of Exact Logistics, a transportation firm which specialises in delivering goods from Germany – from car parts and napkins to tea and trees – to their final destination in Britain.
Based in Rugby, the firm has been “snowed under” since beginning customs clearance in January and is taking on more staff.
“From July everything will have to be cleared at the point it arrives in the UK and in my opinion that has got disaster written all over it,” Shuter said. “I don’t think the systems are robust enough to be able to process the information quickly enough”.
Shuter believes the government should extend the grace period until the systems can cope and traders are used to the new regime and paperwork.
However, not everyone is convinced an extension is the answer. Border checks will need to be introduced at some stage, to prevent leaving Britain open to fraud or smuggling, and to comply with wider World Trade Organization (WTO) standards.
From July, goods entering the UK must be checked at official border control posts, of which there are currently 36. Some firms fear there will not be enough manpower on the borders.
There is “trepidation” ahead of the new procedures, said Jonathan Whittemore, head of production and procurement at Johnsons of Whixley, a wholesale nursery in North Yorkshire. It imports plants and trees from the Netherlands and Belgium to sell to landscaping firms.
“How are these checks at border control posts going to work? If you unload 80 boxes from a lorry, where do you put them to inspect them? If we are talking about the docks at Killingholme, how on Earth are they going to manage to do that?”
The new checks and processes could mean that “some of the biggest headaches for hauliers and companies which import are definitely yet to come,” says Tim Sarson, a tax partner at accountancy firm KPMG.
The introduction of animal and plant inspections in April coincides awkwardly with the time of year when Britain starts to import more groceries from southern Europe.
“You’ve got SPS checks which are slowing things down just as you’ve got volumes ramping up from Europe, if there are going to be shortages of fresh fruit and veg, that is when it is likely to happen,” Sarson said.
Import controls will be introduced “in stages as planned”, said a government spokesperson. “Government stands ready to help businesses keep their goods flowing smoothly,” they added.
• This article was amended on 8 February 2021 to clarify some text relating to UK and GB imports.