Northern Ireland could soon be required to conduct the same number of agri-food checks as the EU currently does as a whole, the region’s chief vet has said.
Dr Robert Huey outlined the scale of the Irish Sea trade bureaucracy the region would face when a Northern Ireland Protocol grace period limiting red tape on moving GB supermarket goods into the region expires.
Dr Huey’s evidence to the Assembly’s agriculture committee came after the UK Government provoked EU anger by moving to unilaterally extend that grace period until October. It had been due to expire at the end of the month.
Under the current protocol exemption, retail agri-food goods from Great Britain are covered by a single operator declaration per lorry load.
When the grace period expires, EU export health certifications will be required for individual product lines.
Certifications are currently only required for non-retail agri-food goods.
Retail goods travelling from GB through Northern Ireland and into the Irish Republic are also currently not benefiting from a grace period and Stormont officials have been monitoring how many certificates each one of those shipments has required since the transition period ended.
Dr Huey said using the Irish Republic-bound lorries as a guide, the documentary checks required on lorries currently covered by one declaration could increase more than 20-fold.
He said the 1,350 GB lorries bound for Northern Ireland retailers every week would require 20-30,000 certifications between them when the grace period ends.
“That’s a huge challenge, that’s approaching the same number of CHED-P (Common Health Entry Document) checks that are done for the entire European Union,” he said.
“And I’ve spoken about this to the commission on purely technical, not political, terms about ‘here is what I’m being asked to do by the Northern Ireland Protocol with my currently 12 vets, that’s not going to work’.
“That’s where we find ourselves. So the extension of grace period, if that is what occurs, is welcomed but it’s not the solution. ”
Earlier, Denis McMahon, permanent secretary at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera), told the committee the level of red tape even during the grace period was “huge”.
He said overall documentary checks currently equated to 20% of the total undertaken by the entire EU.
The senior official said his department is also seeking legal advice on a decision by Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons to halt work on permanent checking facilities at Northern Ireland’s four main ports.
He said planned works, such as contractors moving equipment on to the proposed sites, have been “temporarily rescheduled” pending the outcome of the advice.
Dr McMahon made clear the department will ultimately have to comply with the law in regard to the construction.
He also confirmed an external legal challenge against the minister’s decision has been initiated.
The permanent border control posts are due to open in spring 2022, with ongoing checks taking place at temporary facilities in the ports.
Dr McMahon said food and plant safety checks currently only apply to 30% of the agri-food goods which will be potentially subject to the new processes when an exemption period for retail and supermarket goods expires.
He said 13,629 documentary checks were completed in January and February, with the weekly total rising steadily throughout those months.
“It is worth saying that the scale of documentary checks is huge by any standards.
“By way of illustration, our population is under half a percent of that across the European Union yet the documentary checks, according to the systems, completed so far would represent one fifth of the equivalent documentation right across the EU.”
He said that is because the protocol is affecting domestic food supply chains, whereas regulatory checks on EU imports are mainly bulk movements of international trade commodities.
Dr McMahon told committee members: “What is clear is that we’re handling a burden of work which is stretching us to the limit, which can only get less sustainable as we move beyond the grace period, again depending on what happens.”
The senior official said of the shipments currently requiring documentary checks, 88% also undergo identity checks – requiring the back of the lorry to be opened up – and around 5% full physical inspections.
“We’re achieving this ahead of a major change when the retail grace period ends, and there will be a huge increase in demand, building on current levels, which will not be sustainable with the staff and resources currently available to Daera.”
Dr McMahon questioned whether the department could source the required number of vets and other professionals if it was to try.