Irish Sea checking process in Northern Ireland could be overwhelmed by added bureaucracy when a grace period covering supermarket goods lapses, a Stormont minister has warned.
DUP junior minister Gary Middleton said there might not be enough state vets to deal with the anticipated surge in red tape on April 1.
On that date, retail agri-food products will require EU Export Health Certificates (EHCs) to move from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
EHCs have been required on non-retail agri-food goods since the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31 under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But a three-month exemption period was agreed for GB produce usually destined for supermarket and shop shelves in the region.
This is signed by a representative of the company shipping the goods, declaring that they comply with EU standards and regulations.
The shipping requirements will increase dramatically from April 1 when EHCs will be required for individual agri-food product lines on a lorry.
Products going to multiple destinations will also require multiple certifications.
EHCs are needed for all food of animal origin, some foods of non-animal origin (nuts, spices etc), live plants, other plant-based products and fish.
Live animals and animal-based food products require the input of vets to sign off the EHCs.
Two vets are involved in the process – one in GB to sign the EHC prior to submission and one in Northern Ireland to approve the submitted EHCs on a digital system.
A proportion of goods will also be required to undergo physical inspection at entry ports in Northern Ireland by the vets from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
Mr Middleton told an Assembly committee that there were fears there would just not be enough vets to cope with processes.
“Given the new application of certification of these products and the upcoming end of the grace period for supermarkets and their suppliers on the 31st of March, we are concerned that the official control system might be overwhelmed and there might not be sufficient veterinary capacity to provide the increased number of EHC certificates that will be required,” he said.
The junior minister told members of the Executive Office committee that there could be a significant impact on cost and choice available to consumers in Northern Ireland come April.
He added: “We can’t have a situation where the internal market of the United Kingdom is disrupted so much to the point where it’s effectively crippling our businesses.”
Sinn Fein junior minister Declan Kearney, who also gave evidence to the committee, said “steady heads” were needed to work through disruption caused during the early weeks of the protocol’s operation.
He also flagged that businesses in Northern Ireland could reap benefits from the protocol provision that enables exporters from the region to sell freely into both the UK market and the EU single market.
But Mr Kearney warned that trading arrangements were always going to have to change as a result of Brexit.
“The truth of it is that we now have as a result of the protocol new trading realities and that’s an unescapable consequence of Brexit,” he said.
“Our function and purpose has to be to mitigate and to minimise those to the greatest extent possible to ensure our businesses are not badly affected but importantly our customers and our consumers don’t end up bearing a greater load of cost.
“But there is a curtain of bureaucracy which now exists as a direct consequence between how we trade east/west between Britain and here, between the North and moving into Britain.”