The Times Red Box

Shane Brennan, Chief Executive, Cold Chain Federation

Slow starts to the year are part of the food industry’s normal ebb and flow, but we’ve never before seen sparse motorways and empty ferries like this. Faced with urgent warnings to be ready for an undefined Brexit, and a raging pandemic, businesses took the only rational decision they could – they planned not to trade. They built stockpiles, slowed down or scaled back.

Now 24 days in, it is not clear how, when and if volumes will recover to what they were before.  

Much of the food industry is finding it very hard to trade. Ministers seem convinced these are ‘teething problems,’ the result of a truculent business community not believing change was coming. ‘A business won’t make the same mistake twice’ is a common refrain in operational briefings.

That is not my experience. Meeting new requirements for exports is not about getting one form or one process right, but dozens. Buyers, sellers and the cold chain must synchronise actions precisely, and it relies on overburdened and currently inexperienced third parties like official vets and customs agents. It’s very slow going and things are getting missed.  

Strikingly, for all the talk of technological solutions, enforcing borders is still a human endeavour, subject to communication challenges, whims, and inconsistencies. Businesses are finding that the same process can move goods through the border smoothly one day but see it stopped the next.

The big question is – what now? We are keen to understand what this is all for; both the vision for future trade and the steps involved in getting there.

Extracting ourselves from a system of shared food regulation with the EU was a big decision and not a necessary one. Our rules today are 100% the same as the EU’s. Our stated policy intentions are to toughen our food regulation, not to deregulate and let rip, and yet the deal we struck requires our traders and our food to be treated with overbearing suspicion.

The UK food industry faces a massive wall at the EU border, and we need help to scale it. Experience so far suggests that insofar as Ministers and officials recognise this, they see their job in supporting UK EU trade as a temporary one. It’s Brexit as crisis management.

That mindset has to change, and soon. The idea of the ‘Australia style deal’ was evocative in the campaign, but have we really examined how Australia trades? Ongoing support for businesses to open, maintain, and manage unpredictable markets is a core permanent job of their administration. Our Government must commit to nothing less.

Here is just one example. A specifically trained vet must officially certify the export of all meat and dairy goods. In Australia (and pretty much every country in the world) these vets are Government employees. A recognition of the vital public interest involved in the service of vouching for the quality and safety of the nation’s food.

In the UK we rely on a largely part-time group of private, domestic and farm vets, who are coping with at least ten times more demand that they were a month ago. The responsibility and risks fall on these individuals and errors can cost them their licence and livelihood. It’s a big barrier to trade, and there is no evidence we are even considering whether our system now needs to change.

Export trade with the EU has been the inconvenient truth of Brexit from the start. Scrabbling to hold on to what we have does not fit the expansionist narrative. It is, however, the starting point of our new reality. Recognising the barriers and facing into them is a shared permanent responsibility for Government and business.

It is a mentality shift we have not made yet. Until we do, ‘Global Britain’ is just a slogan.

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