But Tesco chief vows 'we're going nowhere' after Irish Sea 'teething problems'
DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots has warned of shortages of food for schools and hospitals in the months to come - if the post-Brexit trading agreements for crossing the Irish Sea are implemented.
The Department of Health (DoH) said they have not, at this time, received any reports of major issues relating to food shortages or supply problems from health trusts, but some minor delays.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said they currently have "no indication" from suppliers of disruption that would impact delivery of school meals
Supermarkets are currently operating in a grace period to allow them to continue to ship produce from GB into NI without having to go through checks required by the EU in order to protect its market place.
When the grace period ends in March, supermarkets will have to follow more rigorous animal health certification processes under the terms of Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol.
It is Mr Poots' own department which has been responsible for building border control posts at ports in Belfast and Larne in line with the agreed NI Protocol.
"It was made very clear to us by the suppliers to both hospitals and schools that if the current arrangement for supermarkets isn't extended in a few months' time that they will not be able to supply our hospitals and schools with food," Mr Poots told the BBC.
"That is a major crisis and I have raised this with Michael Gove.
"Seriously, are we going to have a situation where our hospitals and schools are not able to feed the children at school, they're not able to feed their patients?
"That is an outrageous situation that we in Northern Ireland have been put in as a result of the protocol negotiated between the UK Government and the European Union."
In a further statement to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Poots said: “I was made aware of this issue during a meeting last week with NI retailers. My officials have been working with traders, retailers, hauliers and Defra on a number of general and specific issues with regard to food for hospitals and schools.
"While some of these relate to the more general concern around groupage, which requires a range of solutions, other specific issues, for example relating to ready meals and specialised diets, have been identified and mitigated. However, stakeholders continue to tell me that in the absence of further mitigations being found, the end of three and six month grace periods will present further issues.
"I have raised this issue with the Defra Secretary of State George Eustice and will shortly write to the EU Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič to ask the UK Government and EU to also seek an urgent solution to this matter."
A DoH spokesperson said the Business Services Organisation (BSO), which provides business support to the health sector, has informed the department that there has not been any major disruption on food supplies into NI hospitals due to EU Exit.
"They have confirmed that there have been some minor delays, and a small number of products have had to be substituted with equivalents, but this is only for a temporary period.
"BSO has worked with HSC Catering Managers to agree a core list of ambient products that they have asked suppliers to hold for an additional 4-6 weeks stocks (in addition to PaLS stockholding of 4-6 weeks) and HSC Trusts also stand ready to change menus should that be required.
"It was further confirmed by BSO that their food contracts will also allow for flexibility and substitution for example, a move from fresh to tinned or frozen for example should that be required.
"BSO has confirmed that their suppliers do have a range of contingencies in place such as additional stockholding, use of alternative transit routes or moving to local supply."
The spokesperson added the department can assure the public the contingency plans that are in place ensure food supply will continue in line with nutritional standards
A Department of Education spokesperson said: ”Catering and Procurement Services within the Education Authority (EA) have worked closely with all key food suppliers since October 2020 in reference to food availability into schools after the end of the transition period.
"Furthermore, EA Catering and Procurement have held several meetings with key suppliers during December 2020 and January 2021. The only issue from the output of these meetings highlighted one product which would not be available and an alternative product will be made available if required by the EA Catering Service.
"The EA will continue to work closely with suppliers during this period to ensure food product availability continues to be delivered to school catering."
“At present we have no indication from our Suppliers of disruption to their supply chain that would impact delivery of school meals.”
It comes as the boss of supermarket giant Tesco has said the chain recognises Brexit has caused "teething problems" for supplies travelling across the Irish Sea, however he pledged "we are staying in Northern Ireland".
Tesco chief executive Ken Murphy was speaking during a financial update on Thursday morning, during which he revealed Tesco is celebrating a record-breaking Christmas period, with online sales up 80% compared to last year.
Mr Murphy said last Christmas was a "very different kind of celebration" due to the Covid pandemic, however the chain still managed to post their sixth consecutive year of growth over the period.
December 21 was the busiest day on record for Tesco, with 110m products sold. Tesco's Finest range also saw increased sales of 14% over the period, with customers enjoying 69m Finest mince pies and taking home 8m bottles of champagne and sparkling wine.
The retailer said group like-for-like sales increased by 6.1% over the 19 weeks to January 9, as it was particularly buoyed by 8.1% growth during the final six weeks of the period.
Sales in the Republic of Ireland also grew 12% over the Christmas period.
Ken Murphy said 2020 was a very difficult year for everyone due to the pandemic.
"I am very wary of the personal impact it has had on us all. I'm am so proud of our colleagues and retail workers more broadly, for coming in day after day and looking after customers," he said.
Mr Murphy estimated that the cost incurred by the company over the course of the year due to the pandemic is around £810m, the majority of which was accrued by staff costs, as well as signage and increased hygiene protocols.
This week Tesco also tightened its Covid rules in stores, turning away customers who are not wearing a face covering, without a valid excuse.
On Brexit, Mr Murphy said there has been some "limited disruption" to supplies going into Northern Ireland and the Republic.
"However we are working very closely with government on both sides of the Irish Sea to ease the flow of products. I would saw that our availability in both markets remains strong and the disruption is limited to specific categories, such as short shelf-life products," he said.
"As you would expect there are teething problems... We did a huge amount of preparation and the feedback we have had from our suppliers is mainly from a customs paperwork and administration point of view.
"Inevitably there are teething issues that you would expect with any new process that has been set up at relatively short notice. However we are working through those and we hope over the coming weeks and months we will end up with a much smoother flow of products."
He added Tesco has no intention of increasing prices, at this stage.
"I want to reassure the public, we are coping with this [disruption] and the availability to our markets in Northern Ireland and the Republic remains strong... We see this as a challenge to overcome, to be resolved over the next few months, but we don't see it as a crisis."
Mr Murphy was questioned over the three-month grace period for supermarkets to adapt their systems to deal with the new Brexit controls, and was asked whether, if this is not extended, there is a possibility of Tesco not operating in Northern Ireland after March 31.
"I can say with 100% confidence that we are staying in Northern Ireland. We are absolutely committed to our customers in the north, and we will find a solution for them," he said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said his Government will have "no hesitation" in triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol if 'disproportionate' problems arise result of the legislation.