The prime minister has acknowledged there are “teething problems” with trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the wake of the Brexit transition period coming to an end.
Britain’s new trading relationship with Brussels came into effect at 11pm on December 31, following an 11-month Brexit transition period.
There have been empty shelves on some supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland as retailers and businesses get to grips with the new rules on importing food products from Great Britain, as well as reports of lorries being delayed and refused entry at ports.
Asked about the situation during an appearance in front of the Liaison Committee of senior MPs, Boris Johnson said: “The situation in Northern Ireland is that trade is flowing smoothly, as I understand it.
“And exporters are benefiting from the unfettered access between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“Yes, I am not going to deny down that there are teething problems, and there are issues that we need to sort out… but the deal has been of great, great assistance to our businesses in smoothing this.”
He later added that the situation was “far better than some people had perhaps expected, things are much smoother” and any problems were “by and large small, soluble questions which one-by-one we are addressing”.
Any bureaucracy was “incredibly light touch, insofar as we have to do any checks at all” and “it is working well”,” the PM claimed.
Speaking at PMQs earlier, Mr Johnson said the UK government would have “no hesitation” in acting if the situation persisted, again referring to the issues as “teething problems”.
He told MPs in the Commons that ministers would step in to tackle the problems if they became “disproportionate”.
The PM said he could invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, the agreement which covers post-Brexit trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
This allows either the UK or EU to “unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures” if its application causes “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist”.
DUP MP Ian Paisley took issue with the PM’s characterisation of the issues as “teething problems”, telling the Commons that people in Northern Ireland had been “screwed over” by the protocol.
He said: “What did we do? What did we do to members on those benches over there to be screwed over by this protocol?
“Ask your hearts, every single one, what did we do? Because what has happened to this protocol – it has ruined trade in Northern Ireland and it is an insult to our intelligence to say it is a teething problem. Tell that to my constituents.”
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s Westminster leader, said the supply issues seen in recent days had been “caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol”.
He expressed concerns that supermarkets will have to confront a “cliff edge” at the end of March unless there is an extension to a grace period that has seen EU certification rules relaxed.
Answering an urgent question in the Commons, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the problems had been mostly “overcome”.
He pledged to work with the British Retail Consortium and other groups to “make sure that we have a sustainable approach for the end of the grace period at the end of March”.
British Retail Consortium director Andrew Opie said the shortages of some items seen in Northern Ireland had largely been remedied.
But he warned there could be renewed difficulties if the grace period is not extended.
“If we do not find a workable solution for retailers in the next couple of months we do face significant disruption in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, warned that the industry could be forced to rethink supply routes if things don’t change, leading to delays and increased costs.
And he voiced fears about potential delays at Channel ports as the number of lorries crossing picks up in the weeks and months to come, declaring: “It will get worse.”
This warning was echoed by Mr Opie, who said British firms were “still not 100% prepared” as France steps up customs checks.
“We are anticipating problems,” he told MPs.
“We’re hoping that they will be relatively minor and consumers don’t notice a difference.
“This is our peak import season and I couldn’t stress this is probably the worst time of the year to try and manage disruption on the short straits.”
Asked about the grace period, Mr Johnson declined to guarantee that it would be renewed.
He added: “What I can certainly guarantee is that if there are serious problems in… supplying supermarkets in Northern Ireland because of some piece of bureaucracy that’s misapplied, then we will simply exercise Article 16 of the protocol.
“It is absurd that there should be such difficulties.”
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