The Government is not envisaging any extension of grace periods that limit Brexit red tape associated with Irish Sea trade, the Northern Ireland Secretary has said.
Brandon Lewis faced robust questioning on the operation of the new arrangements governing the movement of goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland as he appeared before a Westminster committee.
A number of grace periods are currently in operation before the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs GB to NI trade post-Brexit, comes into full force.
For the first three months, the number of veterinary health certificates required on animal-based food products is significantly reduced.
There is also a six-month grace period on the continued import of products from Great Britain that are ultimately due to be banned altogether under the protocol – this includes sausages and other chilled meats.
New customs rules also require declarations on many items being shipped into the region from Britain.
There is a three-month grace period meaning declarations are not required for the majority of parcels being sent from GB to NI.
Despite the grace periods, some trade has been disrupted in the early days of the protocol, with some supermarket shelves depleted of goods and hauliers facing difficulties moving products.
Mr Lewis told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the UK and EU were working to address the issues related to the protocol but said he did not expect the grace periods to be further extended past their current end dates.
“We’re not at the moment in a position where we want to be looking at extending the grace periods,” he said.
“The whole point of the grace periods is there are certain issues that at the end of having secured the protocol we recognise there are still issues where we want to make sure you’ve got that good free flow of products such as the great British banger, as the Prime Minister outlined.
“The idea of grace periods, from our point of view, is to find a solution that means that that can continue to flow, to do that working with the industry, working with our partners in the EU as well.”
Mr Lewis said it was the intention to find “fixed permanent solutions” to issues related to the Northern Ireland Protocol “well before” the grace periods came to an end.
The Secretary of State again reiterated his belief that shortages of some products in the weeks since the transition period ended were more related to the knock-on effects of UK trade with continental Europe being temporarily halted pre-Christmas due to concerns over the new Covid variant.
He said businesses had also taken proactive decisions not to ship produce to Northern Ireland in the early stages of the protocol coming into operation.
“I’m not in any way detracting from some of the challenges we’ve had over the last couple of weeks, but there’s also a reality that some of the challenges have not been related to the protocol,” he said.
“Some of these issues and challenges have been a mixture of things coming together, whether it was Covid more widely in terms of pressures on supply and the Covid issues that we saw at Dover.
“Also businesses making quite understandable – it’s not a criticism and absolutely understandable – but making corporate commercial decisions before the protocol deal was done, let alone the wider deal.”
DUP MP Ian Paisley told Mr Lewis the protocol operation had been an “unmitigated disaster”.
He said he was aware of haulage companies “haemorrhaging” £100,000 a week and having to lay off staff because they were unable to move produce due to the new red tape.
“Secretary of State, there’s a de facto border – administrative, red tape blockade between trade in Northern Ireland and GB and your government promised that there would be unfettered movement,” the North Antrim representative said.
“The first 20 days of January has been an unmitigated disaster for trade, haven’t they?”
Mr Lewis said the Government was working through issues that had emerged. He said progress on problems associated with “groupage” would be announced in the coming days.
Mr Paisley called on the Government to invoke Article 16 of the protocol to halt its operation to resolve issues that are causing economic harm.
“The Secretary of State just can’t keep telling us this is going to be great when it all works out,” he said.
“A lot of these companies will not be left standing by the end of this this month, they’re laying people off today. They can’t wait for three months for you to see how bad this is. This is awful. Please fix it.”