One issue the UK government’s ‘Safeguarding the Union’ deal with the DUP did not resolve, is around the movement of veterinary medicines from Britain to NI.
At the end of 2022, the UK and EU agreed to extend a grace period to the end of 2025, which means veterinary medicines originating in or moved via Britain can still be placed on the market in NI.
Beyond 2025, if solutions are not found, estimates from the UK Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) suggest that 1,700 veterinary medicines (51% of the total) are at risk of being discontinued. Potentially that could leave farmers without the likes of clostridial vaccines for sheep and cattle vaccines covering botulism, bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD), leptospirosis and salmonella.
With that risk in mind, the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ command paper sets out how it is a “priority” for the UK government to find “solutions through technical discussions with the EU”. A veterinary medicines working group is also being set up to advise government on the flexibilities that are needed to ensure future supply of products.
The issue of vet medicine supply to NI is also currently the subject of a short inquiry by a select committee of the House of Lords. In an oral evidence session last month, the committee was told that under the terms of the original NI Protocol deal, products marketed in NI must comply with a new European veterinary medicines regulation.
That regulation requires batch-release testing of vet medicines from a factory to take place in the EU. So for products manufactured and stored in Britain, if they move to NI, the batch-release testing process would have to be repeated here.
In addition, each vet medicine must be associated with a registered address within the EU, meaning those products with a registered address in Britain cannot be used in NI (once the current grace period ends).
“To make those changes [to the registered address] is not a simple process. It is an administrative burden, time-consuming and costly,” Bryan Lovegrove from the Animal Health Distributors Association, told the inquiry last month.
If companies are forced to comply with the EU regulation post-2025, he warned that some might choose to rationalise their product lists, meaning smaller pack sizes are not available.
He also suggested there hasn’t been the political will, especially from the EU, to negotiate on the issue of vet medicine supply, despite the Windsor Framework agreement from early 2023 effectively solving a similar issue relating to human medicines.
According to the industry representatives who addressed the House of Lords committee, the key issue seems to be vet medicines are used in food producing animals and the EU wants to protect its single market for food.
There is the alternative for the industry to source vet products from the EU instead of from Britain. However, all veterinary medicines used in the UK are licensed by the UK VMD, so will have to be brought in under a “special import certificate”, adding significant bureaucracy and cost.
Among the solutions put forward by local representatives of the veterinary profession is the introduction of a “grandfather rule”, meaning that all vet medicines licensed to EU standards prior to Brexit, could continue to be supplied to NI. Only new licenced products would need to go through EU processes.
But ultimately, the core underlying issue around veterinary medicines is EU concern that the UK will gradually diverge in standards. An agreement to align on these standards would form the basis for a permanent solution.
It is, therefore, noteworthy that in the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ document, the UK government commits to introducing “legislation in the spring that would avoid new regulatory divergence between GB and NI on veterinary medicines”.
NI gets access to UK trade deals
Among the main outcomes of months of negotiation aimed at getting the DUP back into Stormont is that meat traders in NI will soon be able to access cheap beef and lamb from Australasia.
Contained within the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ deal is a reference to a legal solution with the EU that will allow local traders to potentially utilise tariff-free quota agreed as part of UK trade deals, rather than having to rely on EU trade arrangements.
The draft text for the legal solution was published at the end of January. It will “enable NI traders to benefit from our independent trade policy on key goods like New Zealand lamb and Australian beef,” suggested NI Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris.
It is understood that the move by the UK government is part of the wider plan to expand the list of agri-food products that can enter NI from Britain via the newly proposed “internal market system’. This system is replacing the concept of a ‘green lane’ created as part of the Windsor Framework agreement announced by the UK and EU in February 2023.
According to the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ document, the internal market system is for goods “not at risk” of moving to the EU. There will be no checks on goods coming into NI under the scheme, except those conducted to tackle criminality, abuse of the scheme, smuggling and disease risks.
In terms of goods moving in the opposite direction, the UK government has guaranteed permanent unfettered access for NI traders to the market in Britain, including for those using the Dublin to Holyhead route.
In addition, there will be no border control post built at Cairnryan in Scotland.
However, companies based in the Republic of Ireland will have to meet relevant import controls, including those moving goods through NI and on to Cairnryan.
“We will develop an approach to checks and formalities on those goods that does not pose any risk to the free and unfettered movement of qualifying NI goods,” states the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ document.
More detail needed, suggests UFU
Reacting to the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ command paper released by the UK government, the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) welcomed the progress made on trade issues, but highlighted that some issues still remain unclear.
“It is crucial we get more clarity on the availability of veterinary medicines. We await the roll-out of new measures to deal with second-hand machinery imports,” said UFU president David Brown.
He added that clarification is also required on the extent to which local stakeholders will be involved in proposed new structures, including a UK East-West Council.
“The UFU will play our part, but it is essential that engagement is substantially improved to achieve the best possible outcome for farmers and food processors here,” said Brown.