Northern Ireland faces a “critical few months” amid fears supermarket shortages could get worse as British food suppliers give up on exports.
Retail bosses told MPs that supermarkets in Northern Ireland will face fresh shortages unless the EU is prepared to extend the “grace period” in the Brexit trade deal.
Multiple trade bodies said haulage firms have been told that as many as half of their mainland-based suppliers will no longer send goods to Northern Ireland over the new rules and the costs involved.
Since Jan 1, many goods travelling from the mainland to Northern Ireland are subject to additional checks, although supermarkets have a grace period until March 31.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the issues were “teething problems”, a comment which was described as “insulting” by a DUP MP.
Mr Johnson said it was “inevitable that there are going to be teething problems when we have a change as substantial as we’ve had”.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) responded: “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."
Supermarkets have seen shortages of some products since the start of the year, although the Northern Irish Retail Consortium insisted this was affecting a few hundred lines out of tens of thousands usually stocked.
Bosses at several major grocers wrote to the Government earlier this week calling for an extension to the grace period.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, which represents convenience stores and independent shops, told the Telegraph: "Our members are weighed down by a huge amount of bureaucracy, form filling and red tape and this is all during the grace period.
"This is a critical few months that we need to get right or come March we are facing a cliff edge."
Boris Johnson described the Northern Irish disruption as 'teething problems'
Credit: Jessica Taylor/Parliament Handout
Andrew Opie, of the British Retail Consortium, told MPs that the problems seen in terms of shortages had been largely overcome, but warned of further issues in April when the grace period ends.
Food and Drink Federation chief executive Ian Wright warned that without changes to the deals, the industry would have to rethink its supply routes, leading to increased costs and delays.
Meanwhile, some food firms have paused exports to Northern Ireland as increased costs have outweighed their profit margins.
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) said one of Northern Ireland’s biggest haulage firms has received confirmation from just 33 of its 75 mainland-based customers that they will continue to deliver, while the Cold Chain Federation said one firm has seen a 45 per cent reduction.
John Martin, the Northern Irish policy manager for the RHA, warned that haulage firms could collapse within “days not weeks” if a solution is not found.
He also said ongoing disruption would have a knock on effect on the Northern Irish economy if manufacturers in the country are unable to get raw materials from Britain.
A UK Government spokesman said a dedicated team has been set up to work with the food industry on the issue and that the grace period for supermarkets was “working well”.
But speaking to a Commons Liaison committee today, Boris Johnson said the Government would exercise Article 16 of the Northern Irish protocol if “some piece of bureaucracy that’s misapplied” caused serious problems.
This allows the UK and EU to act unilaterally if measures imposed are deemed to be causing “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.