Supermarkets in Northern Ireland call for urgent trade action

Six of the UK’s leading retailers have called for urgent action to address the future of British and Northern Ireland trade following the end of the grace period in October.

The retailers, which represent over 75 per cent of the Northern Ireland grocery market, have written to Brexit minister Lord Frost and Maroš Šefčovič, vice-president of the European Commission for Interinstitutional relations.

They warn of risk to choice and availability in Northern Ireland once the period ends in a few months.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said that from October, unless a solution is found, retailers will face increased cost and complexity when moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

This, the organisation explained, is a result of increased checks at Northern Ireland ports, additional paperwork requirements, and the need for Export Health Certificates on products of animal origin.

The challenges this will create in sourcing could force many retailers to move supply chains from GB to the EU, according to the BRC.

While some actions have been agreed by both sides, such as a recent agreement on the extension to the grace period on the movement of chilled meats, the letter notes that “much more needs to be done before the end of September if there is not to be significant disruption to supply and an increase in cost for Northern Ireland consumers.”

The letter urges the UK and EU governments to enter discussions with British retailers, visit their supply chains and distribution centres, and host joint talks between Government technical officials and retail supply chain experts to find a working solution for GB-NI trade.

It warns that without quick action there will be disruption.

Possible solutions include a veterinary agreement, a wider Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) agreement, a facilitated movement scheme or a Trusted Trader scheme.

The retailers are not only urging the EU and UK Government to agree these measures, which aim to reduce friction and keep costs down, but also to provide the time needed to implement such schemes.

The BRC said that its members have long campaigned for frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

In January, the UK’s largest supermarkets wrote to the Cabinet Office secretary on the issue, having raised concerns about the potential disruption to supply chains and the effect that would have on households across Northern Ireland after the grace period ends.

“The end to the NI grace period looms in the mind of every British retailer with supply chains in Northern Ireland. If no action is taken, then it will be the people the Northern Ireland, with half of the discretionary income of GB households, who bear the brunt of this stalemate – meaning less choice and higher costs for essential food purchases,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC. “Already, new red tape is causing delays, there are surging additional costs, and we are seeing challenges to ‘just-in-time’ supply chains.”

Dickinson added: “We need to see real ambition from both sides to provide a compromise that benefits those most impacted: the people of Northern Ireland. Our members made significant investments in the last few months to avoid disruption, yet disruption will become inevitable if the regime that will come into force in October is unrealistic and disproportionately onerous. Retailers have shown their compliance; the Government and EU must now help us by removing the barriers to GB-NI supply chains.”

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