Spar owner warned Poots of disruption to hospitals, schools and prisons

UTV has obtained the minutes of a meeting between the former agriculture minister Edwin Poots and eight of the major supermarkets in Northern Ireland.

The meeting took place on 7 January and was organised so that the Department of Agriculture could hear the experiences and concerns of retailers about the new trading arrangements brought in when the Brexit transition period ended on 31 December.

The meeting was held as shoppers were becoming increasingly aware of empty shelves in supermarkets and a lack of the usual choice of products.

The minutes show that a representative from Hendersons, the group which owns Spar, told the minister that they had concerns regarding the Food Service part of the business, which supplies the hospitality and public sector. 

Under a headline for Hendersons (Spar), it reads: [Concerns regarding food service – hospitality, disruption to supply to schools, hospitals and prisons]

The notes, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, back up comments made by Mr Poots last month when he said publicly that deliveries to hospitals and schools could be disrupted. He was accused by other politicians of scaremongering over the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol on local businesses.

Supermarkets have been given extra time to get used to the new processes in bringing goods from GB to Northern Ireland.  That three-month grace period ends on 1 April.

Representatives from Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, the Co-op, Asda, Lidl, and Iceland were all at the meeting. 

The minutes show that most of the retailers expressed concerns about the impact of the trading changes and the need for an extension to the current grace period. 

Asda told the minister that 12 months were needed, not just three.

Under a headline for Sainsbury’s the minutes read: [need clarity for end of easement period otherwise there will be sudden and rapid reduction in range].

As the meeting took place over six weeks ago, UTV has asked for responses from the retailers involved and whether current situation and impact of the protocol has improved.

In a statement the Henderson Group said: “The Henderson Group has been engaging constructively with DAERA and other relevant bodies to ensure disruption to the supply chain is minimised.

"This covers our Foodservice, Wholesale and Retail businesses. We are currently dealing with some delays, not shortages."

Other retailers have told UTV that they are managing but there is an awful lot of bureaucracy in the background and they want a long-term solution, not just an extended grace period.

A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “A small number of our products are temporarily unavailable for our customers in Northern Ireland while border arrangements are confirmed.

"We were prepared for this and so our customers will find a wide range of alternative products in our stores in the meantime. “We continue to urge the government to find a solution that enables supermarkets to supply customers quickly and easily in the future.” A Co-op spokesperson said: “We are committed to serving Co-op members and shoppers in Northern Ireland and, like many other supermarkets, we understand we may face challenges in supplying certain products to the region because of the new border arrangements and added administration which require more stringent product certification.

"We are prepared and are implementing alternative sourcing and supply arrangements for these products which will maintain availability for shoppers.”