New border checks on European Union goods entering the UK are on the brink of being delayed for the second time amid concerns they could fuel further disruption for supermarkets and shops in the run-up to Christmas.
Whitehall officials are currently locked in talks over further postponing the rollout of the post-Brexit border regime, just weeks before additional controls are due to start being implemented.
As part of its border arrangements, the UK is preparing to introduce new paperwork requirements for EU imports of animal origin and high-risk foods from October, before more stringent physical border checks take effect in January.
The UK chose to delay these new sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls by six months in March, with ministers blaming Covid disruption, despite the EU imposing full checks on British exporters from day one of Brexit.
Britain is meant to introduce the new controls from next month under its revised timetable, but business leaders are warning that it will fuel further disruption to goods flowing across the Channel and hammer consumers with higher prices.
They added that new red tape would increase the cost of transportation, at a time when UK supermarkets and restaurants are already experiencing supply chain disruption because of a lorry driver shortage.
Senior UK officials have confirmed that a decision to delay the new checks is now highly likely, with one senior source stating they expect an announcement to be made imminently.
They added that a range of options is being considered, including a delay of six months or more. It is thought that any delay will be limited to the SPS checks due to come into effect from October.
There are splits within Government over the postponement, with some officials convinced that another extension will merely prolong the uncertainty for businesses and prevent them from adjusting to the reality of post-Brexit trade.
Adam Marshall, the former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce and a senior adviser at Flint Global, said: “From a whole economy perspective, given the supply chain crisis and the inflation pressures, delaying friction on imports means no additional transport costs, no additional price pressures from that.”
Another senior business figure added: “I wouldn’t be surprised if they delayed, given the pressure it is going to put on supply chains coming into the country.”
A third said: “I don’t believe we’re going to be ready for the disruption to the supply chain. We’re still going to want to eat salami next year. There’s so many things that will be disrupted if we do it straight away.
“It would probably be in the interests of the consumers of the UK if the SPS controls were delayed into 2022.”
However, delaying the new checks is likely to provoke a backlash from UK exporters, who have since January been forced to comply with the full suite of EU checks when sending goods into the bloc.
Any extension will be seen as prolonging the competitive disadvantage between British exporters and their EU competitors, one business figure said.
Another said: “It is an unfair and asymmetrical situation and it’s not right. It’s not a position that can stay in place indefinitely.”
Leo Varadkar, the Irish deputy Prime Minister, said last week that he expected the UK to delay its own border controls following talks with Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.