22 Mar 2021

This is now my fourth blog post on the subject of Brexit, but the first since we “crossed the Brexit finish line” as the Prime Minister put it. Of course, while the UK may have formally left the transition period on 31 December, in reality Brexit is far from done. The UK will continue to deal with the consequences for years to come, not least the full implications of the last-minute deal with the EU.

Given this, I thought it a good time to look at this issue again as it relates to food, nutrition and dietetics.

Key deadlines

The first thing to consider is that the deal with the EU has not yet been ratified. The EU was forced to ask for an extension to give them time to translate and scrutinise the deal, so it will only be finally rubber stamped on April 30. Technically speaking the deal may still fail and all the possible implications of a “no deal” may come to fruition, although that seems unlikely. It does mean the various bodies which should be dealing with trade issues have not been fully implemented.

Before that, we also have the end of the next phase of the transition on 1 April. Only some customs arrangements came into effect when we left in January, with others being phased in to make things easier for importers and exporters. In April, products of animal origin, which includes a range of foods, will be subject to pre-notification and health checks. Essentially, it will become more complex to import or export these products, which might impact on cost or availability.

We have been keeping in close contact with the specialist nutrition industry and caterers to assess whether this will have a significant impact on the provision of essential products to the most vulnerable. They seem confident that it will not, and we know from our conversations with the Department of Health and Social Care that contingencies are in place. However, the impact it will have on food prices and food security remains to be seen.

It does seem likely that there will be further specific impacts on Northern Ireland, which has so far seen the greatest problems as a result of Brexit related changes.  

Northern Ireland

While most of the UK may not have noticed the impact on the supermarket shelves (even though exports to the EU fell by 40% in January 2021), Northern Ireland saw significant issues that impacted adversely on food security. Many importers had either not been aware, or had failed prepare for the imposition of a customs border in the Irish Sea. This resulted in food travelling to NI from GB being delayed or stopped altogether.

As mentioned above, this was despite a grace period. UK government officials, including Trade Secretary Liz Truss, claimed the issues were “teething problems”. On the other hand, health Minister Edwin Poots warned of a “major crisis”, especially for schools and hospitals when the grace period on supermarket food imports comes to an end. While Poots was accused of scaremongering, the UK government has now unilaterally extended the grace period until October. This will be legally challenged by the EU Commission, and only kicks the can further down the road. One estimate is that 30,000 checks a week will be required on food imported from GB to NI once the more relaxed rules end.

The BDA has been engaging the Northern Irish government to urge them to take urgent action on this issue, including making representations to the Environment and Health Scrutiny committees. We know that the people who will be most affected by these issues are the most vulnerable, so while the politicians sort out the red tape, we need to ensure measures are put in place so nobody goes hungry.

Trade deals

While these deadlines have some certainty, we also face the much more ambiguous prospect of new trade deals. The UK government has already “rolled over” plenty of arrangements with other nations which essentially maintain rules as they were when we were a part of the EU. However, government are also now negotiating new deals with some nations and have applied to join the Asia-Pacific free trade pact known as CPTPP. The concern remains that in our efforts to secure agreement we will compromise the excellent standards that currently apply in the UK to food, environmental and animal welfare.

Despite our best efforts alongside colleagues at Sustain and elsewhere, we were unsuccessful in altering the Trade Bill to ensure that the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) had a role in scrutinising the health aspects of future trade deals. Even though the TAC is now on a statutory footing, it will not be considering the full scope of deals and much of the negotiation will go on behind closed doors.

However, the TAC has taken a positive first step in its first report to government. Within it, there are clear recommendations to build on our existing standards and focus on sustainability and health within our food system. This is very welcome. The difficult part will be ensuring that the government heeds these warnings and ensuring that experts have a chance to identify risks to our food system in planned deals.

What next?

Recent indications that the government is implementing extensions to grace periods or considering introducing “light touch” border arrangements clearly indicate that this is a “live” issue with the potential for more impact on food availability and food security. The BDA will continue to monitor the situation closely and will be making the case for stronger standards and a stronger food system.

Author

Caroline Bovey

Chair, British Dietetic Association

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