Fears of food disruption linger as Brexit takes full effect

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Freight lorries queue to enter the port of Dover on the south coast of England on December 10, 2020. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite the free trade deal signed by London and Brussels, food suppliers fear the rapidly introduced changes will disrupt supplies and increase costs, undercutting government claims of a post-Brexit dividend.

While Boris Johnson had promised an “oven-ready” deal a year ago, the British prime minister eventually “delivered us four working days”, the Food and Drink Federation complained ahead of Britain leaving the EU’s single market at the close of 2020.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, said members “do anticipate that there will still be disruption to trade at the border”, despite the deal signed on Wednesday.

The UK’s tortuous departure from the European Union takes full effect when Big Ben strikes 11:00 pm (2300 GMT) in central London.

Legally, Britain left on January 31 but has been in a standstill transition period during fractious talks to a secure a free-trade agreement with Brussels, which was finally clinched on Christmas Eve.

As many companies rushed to order in more stock or fulfill orders delayed by coronavirus lockdowns, England’s Channel ports, particularly Dover, were already overflowing ahead of the deal’s announcement.

The situation worsened when a number of European countries closed their borders with Britain for two days ahead of Christmas, seeking to curb the spread of a new, more contagious variant of Covid-19.

Thousands of lorries heading to ports got stuck in vast traffic jams and it took several days and the help of the armed forces to unravel the situation.

Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said “last week’s chaos at Dover and the last-gasp nature of this deal means that there will be significant disruption to supply and some prices will rise”.

While the compromise deal between London and the EU lifted the threat of quotas and tariffs, all the new checks and forms to fill will take up time and push up costs for food and drug companies, trade associations complain.

Around 30 percent of the food eaten in the UK comes from the EU. Britain imports almost half of its fresh vegetables and most of its fruit.

But John Allan, chairman of the market-leading Tesco supermarket giant, sought to reassure consumers, telling the BBC that the new administrative costs would “hardly be felt in terms of the prices consumers are paying”.