More hauliers are turning up at ports with the correct documents, and the volume of agri-food related goods moving from Britain into NI is increasing this week, after a difficult start to the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
However, there remain some gaps on supermarket shelves (mainly chilled and fresh produce), and significant concerns about future trade.
Outlining the issues to MLAs at Stormont last Thursday, NI chief vet Robert Huey said that DAERA’s initial plans at ports were shelved due to the low level of compliance among importers. Those plans involved giving “advice” in the first week of 2021 to those who did not have the correct certificates, or turned up without seals on trailers.
I didn’t think the level of support would be as extensive as it has been
But DAERA had expected hauliers and importers to pre-notify goods on TRACES NT, the EU online system for moving agri-food goods from Britain into NI. That did not happen due mainly to a lack of awareness by companies in Britain to the new rules, and in the end DAERA officials had to fill in forms for traders in some instances.
“I didn’t think the level of support would be as extensive as it has been,” said Huey. Going forward he maintained that he had to balance ensuring the law is kept, and trade continues to flow, so enforcement of the rules will come in gradually.
While DAERA is responsible for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks designed to protect plant and animal health, there are also customs declarations made via the UK government’s Trader Support Service (TSS). Some importers have complained that the service has been slow and guidance from staff unclear.
But while many of these issues will be ironed out as importers become used to the new regime, there remain some significant concerns, especially for retail goods and those carrying loads picked up at multiple locations.
We are worried about 1 April. We need to keep pushing until we get something that works
A haulier lifting different pallets of agri-food related goods across a number of sites in Britain (a groupage load) requires a vet to issue an Export Health Certificate (EHC) to accompany each pallet, and a seal applied to the lorry at each location.
This issue will only become more intense once the grace period for retail goods ends on 1 April. Under that agreement, retail goods do not currently require EHCs. “We are worried about 1 April. We need to keep pushing until we get something that works,” Aodhán Connolly from the NI Retail Consortium told MLAs.
While accepting that the implementation of the NI Protocol has had little immediate impact on the vast majority of farmers, the UFU leadership team told MLAs last week that some issues have emerged.
UFU president Victor Chestnutt again called for a grace period to allow breeding sheep (stranded in Britain because they do not meet requirements set out in EU Export Health Certificates), to return to NI.
He also warned that the movement of pedigree livestock from NI to sales in Britain was “in danger of being wiped out” because of a six-month residency requirement before animals could return to NI (if either bought by a NI farmer or unsold).
I will be a lot more content as we move into the new year when we see that that happens
On the issue of seed potatoes, which cannot move from Britain to NI from 1 January, he said that most NI growers were “fairly well sorted” for the 2021 season, and that there was a view within his membership that this barrier to trade could provide opportunities for local growers.
He also said he was “hopeful” that NI milk taken south for processing will be able to access EU third country trade deals (NI produce going to a third country under preferential terms would have to do so under a UK trade deal).
“I will be a lot more content as we move into the new year when we see that that happens,” said Chestnutt.
The other main issue he raised related to the need for products of animal origin (such as beef) to have accompanying Support Health Attestation (SHA) documents when shipped from NI to Britain.
If the product is subsequently moved into the EU or back to NI, the SHA allows a vet in Britain to issue a relevant EHC. According to Chestnutt, each SHA costs £150.
Within the guidance issued to vets completing a SHA is a requirement that livestock are transported in clean trailers. Producers will have noted some factories have been encouraging compliance around this since the start of the year.