The UK government has asked the European Commission for an extension to the so-called grace period covering customs checks on supplies moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
It wants the agreement, which covers a three-month period, to be extended until 2023.
Because Northern Ireland has a border with the Republic of Ireland, a European Union member state, it has different trading rules to the rest of the UK and companies in Great Britain selling their products into the province have to undergo customs checks.
As part of the Brexit trade deal agreed just days before the UK left the EU on 1 January, the two sides agreed a three-month grace period on checks on goods being moved by supermarkets and some wholesale groups from Britain to Northern Ireland to ease the impact of the post-Brexit new rules.
However, the weeks after 1 January saw delays at Northern Ireland custom points as firms sending goods over from mainland UK struggled to get to grips with additional paperwork and other administrative controls. This resulted in some supermarkets in Northern Ireland struggling to keep their shelves stocked.
And now Northern Ireland’s customs checkpoints at the ports of Larne and Belfast have been temporarily closed because of concerns about possible security threats to staff. Post-Brexit checks were suspended yesterday (2 February) and EU officials temporarily withdrawn from duties following the discovery of sinister graffiti and concerns individuals had been spotted taking down number plate details.
UK Cabinet Office Secretary Michael Gove has now written to the European Commission's vice president, Maros Sefcovic, to ask for urgent political solutions to ensure the situation is not exacerbated by additional border checks being introduced after the end of March.
Tension has risen in the province after a row over the supply of Covid-19 vaccines saw the European Commission threaten last week a U-turn on elements of the Brexit withdrawal agreement drawn up to ensure there would be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland – the Northern Ireland Protocol.
In his letter to the Commission, seen by just-food, Gove said: "The Protocol is clear that it should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities."
He called for a "minimum set of steps necessary to stabilise the situation and reassure all parties in Northern Ireland," to be agreed.
Gove said: "The arrangements that currently apply to supermarkets and their suppliers must be extended until at least 1 January 2023. The eligibility for these arrangements must also be adapted so that all relevant local businesses and services are able to be included as authorised traders. This must be accompanied by a commitment to rapid work on a proportionate, risk based long-term solution that recognises the very low risk nature of retail movements by trusted traders."
He also called for a permanent solution for chilled meat products moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that are otherwise prohibited.
"If this in practice requires further time and engagement, then a temporary solution must be in place until at least 1 January 2023," he said.
just-food has asked the European Commission for its response to Gove's letter.