The Northern Ireland hospitality sector will face severe Brexit-related difficulties as it comes out of coronavirus lockdown after its suppliers in Great Britain were told they were not covered by a UK extension of the “trusted trader” scheme designed to smooth supermarkets’ supply to the region.
Haulage, hospitality and food wholesale industry groups have warned of “trouble” ahead after UK government officials said hospitality was not covered by the temporary cuts to border bureaucracy for goods coming to Northern Ireland from the mainland.
The controls are required under the so-called Northern Irish protocol, which was agreed alongside the Brexit deal to protect the EU single market on the island of Ireland. It means all goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland must comply with EU customs and food hygiene rules.
The British government moved unilaterally last month to extend the grace period for supermarkets, set to expire on Wednesday, to the end of October. This prompted a backlash from the EU, which has started legal action.
The temporary exemption was designed to help supermarkets and retailers adjust to the requirement of filling in complex documents, including ‘export health certificates’ that are needed to send plant and animal products to the EU.
It was also being used by some suppliers to the hospitality and public sector, such as schools and hospitals, during the quiet Covid shutdown period. However, UK government officials told industry leaders at a meeting last week that customs inspectors in Northern Ireland’s ports would no longer turn a blind eye to food wholesalers using the authorised trader scheme for the hospitality and public sectors once lockdown is lifted.
Officials said the UK government had “tested” with the EU whether the scheme could be extended to hospitality but said Brussels had shown “little to no appetite” for the idea. As a result, the UK government had accepted it had no “credible legal basis” to act unilaterally, according to an account of the meeting obtained by the Financial Times.
The officials also conceded the decision meant the sector had “no simple answers” as trade volume picked up after lockdown. This leaves UK mainland suppliers to public services and hospitality in Northern Ireland having to obtain export health certificates.
The UK government said: “We are committed to meeting our obligations under the Protocol in a pragmatic and proportionate way and our temporary, practical measures allow discussions to continue without the threat of significant disruption in areas important to lives and livelihoods — like food supplies and parcel deliveries.
The NI Executive is expected to outline the region’s road map for leaving lockdown in the coming days. The hospitality sector has warned that the new rules combined with the sudden reopening of cafés, bars and restaurants would present huge challenges.
“If they really are excluding the wholesale-from-trusted-trader scheme, we really are in big trouble”, said Colin Neill, chief of Hospitality Ulster, the trade body that represents a sector which is the region’s fourth-largest employer, supporting 72,000 jobs.
“We won’t starve but it’s going to be really difficult and challenging. It will impact the reopening of hospitality if we’re taken out of the authorised-trader scheme without an alternative,” he added.
The exclusion of one of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic threatens further complications in the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Hauliers said the new bureaucracy imposed on hospitality and public services in Northern Ireland would put huge strains on supply chain systems which were already struggling to cope before the end of lockdown.
John Martin, policy manager for the Road Haulage Association in Northern Ireland, said the move would present “significant problems for hospitality” after Easter. He said it would add pressure for vets and customs specialists who would be needed to process export health certificates.
Shane Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation which represents the chilled products industry, said it was “hard to overstate just how confusing, costly and inefficient” supplying Northern Ireland was about to become for businesses.
“The Covid-enforced closure of most of the hospitality sector has masked the fact that there is currently no realistic, affordable or reliable way to supply Northern Irish schools, hospitals, restaurants and cafés from the GB mainland,” he added.
The Food and Drink Federation warned that if grace periods were not extended to hospitality it would “add enormous complexity” for food manufacturers in Great Britain supplying the Northern Irish hospitality market. Some might stop supplying the market as a result.
Meanwhile, UK and EU officials are continuing to hold talks over fully implementing the protocol, which continues to be a big source of tension between the EU and UK. It has also strained political relations in Northern Ireland where Unionists are demanding prime minister Boris Johnson scraps the deal because it creates a trade border in the Irish Sea.
On Wednesday, the UK government responded to EU demands for a “road map” on implementing the protocol by providing a “work programme” which UK officials said was designed to explore obligations on both sides to make the deal work.