Supermarkets doubt government's trade support service will be ready by end of Brexit transition

A lorry driver views the queue of lorries on the M20 as lorries wait to enter the Eurotunnel site in Folkestone, Kent, due to heavy freight traffic. Credit: PA

The UK’s largest supermarkets have told the government that they don’t believe its Trader Support Service will be working in time for the end of transition and have urged it to find another way to ensure they can supply their shops in Northern Ireland in the new year.

Every week Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, The Co-op and Iceland send tens of thousands of product lines across the Irish Sea from the British mainland.

From 1st January they will be required to complete customs declarations.

The government has set up the Trader Support Service (TSS) to make the process cheaper and easier.

The TSS is supposed to act as a customs agent on behalf of companies who wish to send goods to Northern Ireland, completing declarations on their behalf, but retailers have little confidence the IT system will be ready in time.

Last Friday, 11th December, there was a call with members of the Food Resilience Industry Forum, hosted by David Kennedy, DEFRA’s director general.

According to several participants on the call, Asda warned it will not meet the deadline to link all its 47,000 product lines to the TSS system.

Asda warned it will not meet the deadline to link all its 47,000 product lines to the TSS system. Credit: PA

Chris Lowe, Asda’s Head of Public Affairs, said the supermarket has not yet completed the classification coding that is necessary for each product and that the TSS has not provided clarity on the format in which the data will need to be submitted.

Asda is concerned that its IT system may not be compatible with the one the TSS is building.

Asda spoke up but the worries it expressed are shared by other retailers that in Northern Ireland, including Sainsburys, Tesco, and the Co-op.

There’s little faith that the TSS IT system will be up and running by 21st December, as HMRC has promised, and an anxiety that if isn’t functioning properly by 31st December then supermarkets will struggle to send goods from Britain to Northern Ireland.

“Our IT experts have no confidence that [the TSS System] will cope,” a supermarket executive told me. “It has been setup in rush, it’s only been tested on a few lines, there is no way it will stand up.”

A lorry exits the Dublin Port tunnel on the M1 motorway, which connects Dublin Port in the Republic of Ireland with Northern Ireland. Credit: PA

David Kennedy, DEFRA’s director general, told participants on the call last week that the government would “ensure the flow of food to Northern Ireland as an absolute principle”.

Thus far, however, the issues Asda raised have not been resolved.

Food retailers and manufacturers have other concerns too.

On 15th December, on an EU EXIT presentation online, DAERA’s chief veterinary officer for Northern Ireland, Robert Huey, revealed that companies “exporting” certain agri-foods from Britain to Northern Ireland will be required to complete an official certificate, signed by a qualified vet who will also seal the container before export.

Huey confirmed that food - specifically chilled mince and meat preparations - arriving in Northern Ireland without the required veterinary certificate will be issued with a non-compliance note from 1st January. From 7th of January non compliant food will be sent back or destroyed.

This new certificate appears to be very similar to the Export Health Certificate that Michael Gove said last week retailers won’t need to worry about until April at the earliest.

The cost of the new certificate will be met by government but it is not clear that supermarkets will be able to organise themselves to comply in time for 1st January.

A government spokesman said: “ The delivery of HMRC IT systems is on track. The Trader Support Service (TSS) is live for registrations and is already providing guidance and training for thousands of traders and will be ready for 1 January.”

On the requirement for certificates signed by vets it said: “Our agreement with the EU on Northern Ireland prevents disruption at the end of the transition period. This includes a grace period from certifications for authorised traders, such as supermarkets, to update their procedures along with a separate grace period for the movement of chilled meats.”

“We have consistently recognised that there will be some new requirements on agri-food movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We are supporting traders with a new Movement Assistance Scheme which removes costs and provides practical support to businesses moving animals, plants and agri-food goods.”

Tesco said: “We welcome the progress on the Northern Ireland protocol and are working with officials in DEFRA and DAERA on details in relation to implementation.”

Asda said: “We are part of a number of private, cross industry working group calls designed to ensure preparedness for January and the continued flow of goods for our customers.

"We are pleased by the positive assurances from Defra that products will continue to flow into Northern Ireland and will continue to work with them to ensure the technical details are in place to achieve this.”

Sainsbury’s and The Co-op declined to comment.

Iceland was not available for comment.