Two out of five firms which export goods have seen sales fall in recent months, new research suggests, leading to calls for trade barriers with the EU to be reduced.
Caterers, retailers and wholesalers are most likely to have reported decreased sales, said the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC).
Advance bookings and export orders show no signs of improvement, indicating that recovery is “distant”, said the report, based on a survey of more than 2,900 exporters for the first quarter of the year.
The number of firms reporting fewer export sales increased to 41% from 38% in the previous quarter, said the BCC, while those saying exports have increased fell 2% to 20%.
Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the BCC, said: “Given that export sales are at some of the lowest levels ever recorded in the history of our data, the fact that situation is continuing to deteriorate is concerning.
“These new figures show that UK exporters are currently facing a range of issues that go beyond just those that have been created by the pandemic.
“The message is loud and clear that the difficulties exporters are facing are not just ‘teething problems’.
“They are structural issues that, if they continue to go unaddressed, could lead to long-term, potentially irreversible weakness in the UK export sector.
“We are calling on both the UK and EU to get back around the table and produce solutions that reduce trade barriers and give exporters a fighting chance.
“Exporters want desperately to play their part in the UK economic recovery from Covid-19, but they are currently being hampered by issues outside of their control.”
A Government spokesman said: “The Trade and Co-operation Agreement is the first free trade agreement the EU has ever reached based on zero tariffs and zero quotas. It protects high quality jobs and investment right across the UK and ensures that businesses continue to trade effectively and sell to their customers in the EU.
“Overall freight volumes between the UK and the EU are back to their normal levels, and there is no general disruption at UK ports.
“We want to ensure that businesses get the support they need to trade effectively with Europe and to seize new opportunities as we strike trade deals with the world’s fastest growing markets. That’s why – in addition to the £20 million SME Brexit Support Fund – we are operating export helplines, running webinars with experts and offering businesses support via our network of 300 international trade advisers.”