Delay in import checks shows government working out Brexit ‘plan’ as it goes | Comment and opinion

Even the tall old Duke of York’s 10,000 men had their limits. They would probably have died of exhaustion had they served under Boris Johnson.

So you can’t blame the food sector for growing weary as it is driven around by a government still looking for the sunny Brexit highlands.

On the one hand, there was a collective sigh of relief when Brexit general Jacob Rees-Mogg revealed that EU import controls, which were due to come into force on July 1, would be delayed for the fourth time. But there is growing backlash about whether this cycle of misery for agribusinesses will ever end.

What exactly is the endgame and does the government itself have any idea how things will play out?

The answer to that appears to be a resounding ‘no’ judging by the reaction of suppliers who took part in talks with Defra yesterday. They hoped – in vain – to be told what to do next, having spent the last few months spending time and money preparing for a deadline that has now come and gone.

“We all want to know what the government’s plan is. We wanted to get the details,” says Richard Harrow, CEO of the British Frozen Food Federation. “But it’s obvious there’s no plan at all.”

Officials at a Kent border facility were among those who made their feelings clear. They have apparently asked Defra officials if they should bring in the bulldozers to demolish the facilities which have been prepared at great expense to deal with the new checks, now delayed until at least the end of next year.

It’s not just the infrastructure either, but the thousands of staff that have been employed to try to prepare the industry for the government-imposed changes that most didn’t want. Many of them are now wondering if they will still have a job at the end of the week.

While there has been a sense of relief in many quarters that the disruption the checks will inevitably bring has been postponed, the industry is also rightly wondering if this mess will ever end.

And what added insult to injury was the government’s attempt to disguise this as some sort of carefully considered master plan.

Rees-Mogg said in his statement that instead of introducing controls as planned, “the government is accelerating our transformation program to digitize Britain’s borders, harnessing new technology and data to reduce friction and costs for businesses and consumers”.

He added: “This is a new approach for a new era as Britain maximizes the benefits of leaving the EU and puts the right policies in place for our trade with the whole world.”

The UK therefore continues to rely on EU officials to oversee food safety. UK exporters face a wall of red tape while their European counterparts struggle with mothballed checkpoints. Hardly a big Brexit hit.

“The truth is, everyone expected it, but everyone knows it’s not the right thing to do,” says one major vendor.

“Of course it is practical, because some are not ready. The major ports are ready. The smaller ones are not, and on the EU side, many small European companies that export are not ready.

“But the asymmetry is ridiculous and insulting. If that’s what taking back control is all about – forcing UK suppliers to pay extra to export while European suppliers pay nothing to bring food into this country – heaven help us .

Even trade bodies that hailed the delay argued it was the right decision for the wrong reason.

After presenting a clean sheet so far, the government is promising more details on its plan in the fall.

Forgive suppliers if they don’t get too carried away with expectations. They’ve been walked up the proverbial hill so many times that they’re no doubt getting used to limbo.

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