Last reviewed 7 September 2021

During the weeks immediately after the UK left the European Union, Government ministers were quick to dismiss initial difficulties as teething problems with the implication that, once these were sorted out, the promised advantages would come on stream.

Eight months later, however, while the Government would argue that its record with regard to introducing new trade agreements has lived up to those promises, its critics are becoming ever more vocal about the downside of leaving the EU.

No chicken at Nando’s

Worryingly for the Government, some of its supporters in the media are beginning to show pictures of empty shelves and to report on the increasing struggle by household brands to get their goods to market. In the middle of August, for example, Nando's confirmed that it had shut 45 restaurants due to a shortage of chicken caused by a lack of staff in the supply chain. Wetherspoons founder Tim Martin was a leading Brexit supporter, even printing 200,000 beer mats featuring the message “take back control” before the EU referendum. With his pubs short of both beer and staff, he has recently joined the call for more EU workers to be allowed into Britain.

There is no doubt that delivery drivers and others having to isolate because of the pandemic has been a factor in these shortfalls but the chairman of Tesco John Allen was in no doubt where the main blame lies. He told the BBC’s World at One that supermarkets were struggling to source stock as a result of immigration rule changes caused by Brexit reducing the supply of lorry drivers. With planning for the festive season already taking place, he warned, this means that supermarket shelves could be empty at Christmas.

Ballet dancers but no butchers

Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Processors Association, is another fierce critic of the Government’s position. He said: “Since Brexit, the Government has put in place new immigration rules that have abruptly pulled up the drawbridge and shut off access to overseas workers with specific skills and experience. This has plunged the meat industry and many others into a full-blown labour crisis.” The food and drink industry, together with other sectors including agriculture, construction and social care, depended to a greater or lesser extent on low-paid workers from the EU and, under the post-Brexit rules, it is nearly impossible for these workers to obtain visas.

Mr Allen’s solution would include the introduction of a 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa to address the immediate labour crisis. This, he went on, should be backed up by changes to the Shortage Occupation List which the Government maintains to allow exemptions to the rules where certain specialist jobs cannot be filled by UK applicants. Unfortunately, Mr Allen pointed out, this currently includes ballet dancers and artists but has no room for the in-demand butchers and HGV drivers.

Train your own

With haulage groups such as Logistics UK, employer bodies including the CBI and trade organisations including the British Retail Consortium (BRC) all making similar pleas, the Government was quick to respond but it did not give the answer these groups were pressing for. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said: “We want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.” Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng reinforced the message when he said HGV drivers are not sufficiently skilled to meet visa requirements and that companies should focus on training and recruiting British staff.

That is not going to solve the problem of empty shelves at Christmas, Logistics UK responded, as training new drivers takes time and is expensive for the individuals concerned. Furthermore, the pandemic has meant a backlog in testing capacity within the Government agencies making it difficult for trainee drivers to get the necessary licences. The backlog of outstanding HGV driver tests at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) could take until early 2022 to clear, said Alex Veitch, General Manager of Public Policy at Logistics UK.

More rules on the way

The Government has recently issued advice on preparing for new rules for transporting goods to or through Europe using cars and trailers, vans and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). Available at www.gov.uk/guidance/transport-goods-in-and-out-of-the-uk-using-vans-or-car-and-trailers-from-21-may-2022, this explains that operators might need: to register some journeys within Europe on an online service from 2 February; and a vehicle operator licence if they use vans or car and trailers over 2.5 tonnes to transport goods to or through Europe from 21 May 2022. From that date, a standard international vehicle operator licence will be needed to transport goods in the EU and the three other countries that are members of the European Economic Area (EEA): Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

One deadline with regard to a post-Brexit change has already been put back. UKCA (UK Conformity Assessed) marking for goods being placed on the market in Great Britain was introduced to replace the CE mark which has been a familiar sight on products for nearly 30 years. Businesses have however warned that they have not had sufficient time to make the change and will not be ready for the deadline of 1 January 2022, on which date the UKCA mark was set to become compulsory.

BEIS has now confirmed that it will move the deadline and businesses will now have until 1 January 2023 to apply UKCA marks for certain products to demonstrate compliance with product safety regulations.

Bring back Brock

Designed to keep traffic on the M20 and other roads in Kent moving, Operation Brock is the traffic management contingency plan to be used in the event of significant disruption at the Short Straits crossings in Kent immediately following Brexit. The current legislation, which was due to expire on 31 October 2021, includes provisions requiring any goods vehicle that has an operating weight exceeding 7.5 tonnes heading for Dover and the Channel Tunnel (the Short Straits) to proceed only by designated routes, and enables penalties to be applied to any vehicles breaching those requirements.

In a change which will be formally approved once Parliament returns this month, the Department for Transport (DfT) has announced that legislation will be put in place so that Operation Brock can continue to be an option to manage short-term traffic disruption at the Short Straits beyond the October deadline. Ministers said the move would ensure that Operation Brock could be used as a contingency traffic management measure and stressed that this “would not be solely related to EU exit”.

Moving on

The Government’s plans for life after Brexit were enacted successfully in two areas, as a replacement for the European Commission as a guardian against unfair trade was unveiled, and the first food to receive protected status since leaving the equivalent EU scheme was named. The Trade Remedies Authority (TRA) is a new body that investigates whether measures are needed to counter unfair import practices and unforeseen surges of imports. This month it published its first recommendation on measures to be taken against imports of welded tubes and pipes from China, Belarus and Russia. The Secretary of State for International Trade has upheld its findings, which will now take effect.

With regard to foodstuffs, the EU has granted protected status to products — including Champagne, Gorgonzola and Halloumi — for more than 30 years. Dozens of UK products were accepted into the scheme, including Stilton, Scotch Whisky and Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb. All product names protected in the EU on 31 December 2020 following successful applications to the EU GI (geographical indication) schemes are still protected under those schemes.

The first food to receive protected status under the independent GI scheme run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is Gower Salt Marsh Lamb — meat produced from lambs born and reared on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales.

Only local producers can use this name and display the GI logo on their product.

Don’t forget Northern Ireland

With the problems of empty supermarket shelves at home, and the disintegrating situation in Afghanistan on the international stage, there has been little attention paid to the problems of Northern Ireland in recent weeks. However, as we highlighted last month, the current extended grace period under which trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is operating is set to end on 30 September. And before that date someone has to try to bring the UK and the EU to agreement on what happens next — given that both sides went on their summer holidays blaming the other for the current stand-off.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently visited Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin to emphasise the EU’s unity when it comes to resisting the UK’s request to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol. Meanwhile Baroness Kate Hoey, a leading figure in the Brexit campaign alongside Boris Johnson, has done nothing to increase trust between the two. She told GB News that Northern Ireland had been “sacrificed” (by the agreement on the Protocol) because it could have been that “we weren’t going to get Brexit at all” if it had not been signed.

Kick the can

With time running out, the UK’s Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost, announced on 6 September that his answer was to extend indefinitely the grace periods with regard to fully implementing the Protocol. This was done without the agreement of the EU which responded by repeating its position: it will work to identify long-term, flexible and practical solutions but it will not renegotiate the Protocol which remains an integral part of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Plus ça change…