Government blames Covid as it delays full UK customs checks on EU goods until 2022

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Shipping containers are unloaded from a cargo ship at the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk. Shipments of personal protective equipment have been clogging UK ports, causing huge delays compounded by retailers and manufacturers importing goods for the Christmas shopping rush. PA Photo. Picture date: Sunday December 13, 2020. The UK's busiest port is struggling to deal with the congestion as other businesses are bringing in items before the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, when customs checks with the European Union are expected to cause even more delays. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire - Joe Giddens/PA Wire/Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Shipping containers are unloaded from a cargo ship at the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk. Shipments of personal protective equipment have been clogging UK ports, causing huge delays compounded by retailers and manufacturers importing goods for the Christmas shopping rush. PA Photo. Picture date: Sunday December 13, 2020. The UK's busiest port is struggling to deal with the congestion as other businesses are bringing in items before the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, when customs checks with the European Union are expected to cause even more delays. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire - Joe Giddens/PA Wire/Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The UK’s new customs border with the EU will not be fully operational until 2022, the Government has announced, as ministers sought to blame the delays on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has confirmed that new checks on certain EU food imports will now not be required until October, six months later than planned, with a second round of controls pushed back until January next year.

The final set of checks, including on live animals at border control posts, will only commence three months later, in March.

EU diplomats and officials have taken aim at the move, questioning how postponing full customs checks until a year after the transition period ended represented taking back control of the UK’s borders.

Neale Richmond, the Fine Gael spokesman for European affairs, said: “From a European perspective these continuing delays underline perhaps the folly of Brexit and will no doubt make for difficult reading to other Eurosceptics.”

Critics also warned the move would merely prolong the unequal trade terms currently being experienced by UK exporters, who have faced full customs checks when sending goods into the EU since January.

However, the Government said that while required systems and infrastructure could have been ready in time for the original deadline in July, the postponement was necessary to give businesses time to recover from Covid-19 disruption.

Mr Gove told MPs: "In reviewing the timeframes, we have given strong weight to the disruption which has been caused, and is still being caused, by Covid, and the need to ensure that the economy can recover fully.”

Meanwhile, the European Union's ambassador to the UK appeared to take a swipe at Boris Johnson over his decision to unilaterally extend grace periods for supermarkets and parcel couriers in Northern Ireland without the bloc’s consent.

At a briefing with journalists in London, Joao Vale de Almeida said that while he wanted the best possible relationship between the EU and UK, there needed to be “high levels of trust, mutual trust".

"Trust is maybe the most important commodity in international agreements. When there is no trust, when levels of trust go down, you are less capable of finding solutions,” he continued.

Brussels is understood to be preparing to initiate legal action against the UK over its actions in Northern Ireland “within days”, with EU figures accusing Lord Frost, the minister in chart of EU relations, of torpedoing the progress made in talks with his predecessor, Mr Gove.

On Thursday night, business leaders welcomed the postponement of new UK import controls, adding that it had been necessary to prevent additional disruption at the border from next month.

Dover Port by haulage type
Dover Port by haulage type

However, the British Retail Consortium appeared to question the Government’s claim that the delay had been due to Covid-19 disruption, arguing that the required border control posts were currently “little more than a hole in the ground”.

“Until the infrastructure is in place, with IT systems ready and established processes for checks and paperwork, it would be foolhardy to introduce full requirements,” director Andrew Opie said.

Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, added: “In amidst this positive news we should also pause to think about the ongoing unfairness that will be experienced by UK to EU food exporters, who will continue to face a hard border with all its costs and uncertainties and see their equivalents continuing to benefit from de facto unfettered access to their domestic market.

“It is not clear how this action will give the EU an incentive to be more willing to discuss ways to reduce the burdens on UK exporters.”

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