During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in April, food kept flowing through the UK’s borders and into our supermarkets. But a second wave coupled with a no-deal Brexit has the potential to threaten our supply, says Efra select committee chair Neil Parish.
Last week I had the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister, at Liaison Committee, about Covid-19 and the food supply, as well as Brexit.
The Efra Committee, which I chair, conducted an inquiry in the summer into Covid-19 and the food supply.
In our report, we found the food ‘just in time’ supply chain is efficient, but not necessarily resilient.
The two are different, and we need to improve our resilience.
During Covid-19, the food supply to supermarkets continued because we were able to keep food coming into the country.
But a second wave of coronavirus and a World Trade Organisation Brexit in January has the potential to disrupt the flow of food and cause more serious problems than before.
The food sector has repeatedly raised concerns with me and my committee about the impact of leaving the EU with no agreement on cross-border trade.
Much of our fresh food in January comes through Dover, with 90 per cent of our lettuces, 80 per cent of our tomatoes and 70 per cent of our soft fruit imported then.
Even the Government’s best estimate is a reduction by one-third in imports across the Channel due to new border checks.
The Prime Minister didn’t give much away about how we plan to keep the border flowing, but he did pledge, on the record, to levy our UK Global Tariff on EU food imports.
Farmers Guardian readers will remember well the Temporary Tariff Regime the Government published in the run-up to ‘no deal’ last year.
It caused uproar among rural MPs, and those in the farming community, because of the imbalance in tariffs.
Wheat imports would have had a 0 per cent tariff coming into the UK, while the EU would levy 53 per cent on our exports.
Fortunately, the Government has moved away from this policy and the new Global Tariff is much more punishing on imports, from foodstuffs to cars, protecting our producers and ensuring leverage for a future trade deal at the same time.
I know farmers and food producers in this country are watching what the Government is saying and doing carefully.
Everyone is keen to plan, but significant uncertainty remains about our future relationship with our biggest trading partner.
This week, in the Commons, the Internal Market Bill has been progressing, effectively as an insurance policy for ‘no deal’, which just shows you where we are in these negotiations.
We also had Defra Secretary George Eustice in front of the select committee to give evidence, but I couldn’t quite tempt him into putting a percentage on the likelihood of reaching a deal with the EU.
What he was clear about was the detailed work Defra has done on ‘no deal’ preparations, including on things like ewe special premiums and prioritising perishable goods at the border.
I have a long experience of European politics, having been an MEP for ten years.
I still remain hopeful of us reaching a deal next month – and perhaps my Brexit Hub updates will be redundant soon after?
Unfortunately, one thing’s for certain, there will be a few twists and turns in these negotiations yet.
Neil can be found tweeting at @neil_parish