There are 42 days to go until the end of the Brexit transition and major retailers continue to warn that, as it stands, they will struggle to deliver thousands of food lines to their shops and supermarkets in Northern Ireland in the new year.Last Friday, the prime minister hosted a call with the chief executives of eleven of the UK’s biggest retailers, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, M&S, the Co-op, Aldi, Waitrose, Lidl, Iceland and Ocado.Discussions were principally focused on Covid-19 and how lockdown restrictions can be safely lifted in the run-up to Christmas, but Boris Johnson sought to address concerns that the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol could lead to gaps on the shelves.The prime minister offered reassurance.“Nothing can stop the Great British sausage making it to Belfast,” he said.“It was pure Boris,” one participant told me. “But there was no detail to back that statement up."Retailers are worried about their ability to ship sausages and a host of other foods from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland because, while the Northern Ireland Protocol - which was part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement - avoids the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland, it creates a notional customs border down the Irish Sea.
Every week Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, M&S, the Co-op and Iceland send around 600 lorries from the British mainland to Belfast and Larne.Two weeks ago the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, Simon Roberts, said the supermarket may have to restrict what it dispatches to its 13 stores in Northern Ireland, and that there was an urgent need for clarity on how the Northern Ireland Protocol will be implemented. Up to 40% of Sainsbury’s grocery ranges in Northern Ireland - including meat, fish and dairy products - could be affected by changes to the trading rules when the UK officially leave the single market and its customs union on 31st December. We asked Asda if it shares Sainsbury’s concerns. It does, and the supermarket gave us the following statement: “We now appeal to the negotiators, at this crucial moment in the process, to be creative and generous. NI consumers deserve to be protected from delays, lack of choice and extra costs. "Supermarkets need a workable outcome and we see the best solution in a bespoke all-encompassing certified and audited trusted trader scheme, which we believe would protect consumers and the single market.”
Roger Burnley, the chief executive of Asda, apparently made very similar comments when he addressed the Northern Ireland Food And Drink Association’s virtual annual dinner five weeks ago.We have seen a recording of that event. In his speech, Mr Burnley also said Asda would do what it could to “keep product on the shelves,” but warned that, without clarity on the rule changes, a tipping point will soon be reached.“We are fast running out of time for businesses to be able to plan and make decisions ahead of the deadline. The EU and UK must make a deal,” he said.Marks & Spencer estimates that up to 1,000 product lines in Northern Ireland could be impacted when transition comes to an end - around 10% of its food range.
M&S doesn’t know if it will legally be able transport sausages, mincemeat and breaded poultry to Northern Ireland, or whether its organic and free-range foods will be able to be sold as such.
In statement, Steve Rowe, the CEO of M&S told ITV News: “We are committed to Northern Ireland and our priority is to make sure we continue to deliver the same choice and great quality range that our loyal customers enjoy there now.
"However, to keep this promise, retailers need urgent answers from government on several aspects of the protocol – particularly on certification processes and labelling. We have extensive contingency plans in place but the clock is ticking and if clarity is not given soon there is a real risk to supply from the UK mainland, which could limit customer choice in Northern Ireland.”The key point here is that when Brexit transition ends Northern Ireland will remain a member of the United Kingdom but will continue to follow the EU’s legislation for food and environmental issues.This means that all retailers face changes to food labelling and marketing material, controls on the movement of products and, potentially, an effective ban on some foods. When the UK leaves the EU’s single market and its customs union it will become a "third country”.The EU restricts the food third countries are able to bring in. The EU’s list of restricted items includes chilled processed meat, like sausages, and seeds.
An executive at one of the big UK retailers told me that the problem is that the government agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol without fully understanding the consequences.
“I think the government took the view that it would be a soft border and permissive, and it’s now dawning on them that it can’t be done,” the executive said. “The preparations for the Northern Irish border are not in place, they are simply not there. There are those in government who don’t want to hear that but it’s true.”“If we have no deal and tariffs, well that’s a different ball game. In that case profit margins will go bang and there will be businesses - in agriculture and seafood in particular - which are no longer viable. But there’s a collective assumption [no deal] won’t happen.”“But even if there is an agreement, the border down the Irish Sea will require a huge amount of administration. It can work, it will work eventually but only at a cost, and, as it stands, the technology and the customs systems are months and months away from being ready.”
Aodhán Connolly from Northern Ireland Retail Consortium says it is “remarkable” that with six weeks to go retailers still don’t know how the Northern Ireland Protocol will work.“It’s like being asked to do an exam with only the front and the back covers of the text book,” he told ITV News.
“We still haven’t had the technical detail on customs, we still haven’t had the detail on the new IT systems, we still don’t know what will happen with those costly Export Health Certificates - so really we are still in the dark on a lot of things.”Mr Connolly said price rises in Northern Ireland are inevitable, deal or no deal, and the only way to avoid disruption to the supply of food was to publish the new rules and give retailers more time to adjust to them.“There is going to be checks, there are bound to be delays, there is going to friction,” he said. “It’s hugely important that we have some sort of implementation of adjustment period.”
Tesco has 50 supermarkets in Northern Ireland, more than any other retailer. The company gave us the following statement: “We remain committed to serving our customers in Northern Ireland and will continue to ensure that we can operate effectively for our customers, colleagues and suppliers.”None of the other retailers we approached were prepared to comment.
A government spokesman said: “We will ensure that there is no ban on trade in sausages from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
"We are working to find an appropriate solution through the Northern Ireland Joint Committee process.”