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Further delays on import checks expose UK to unacceptable African swine fever risk

30th Mar 2022 / By Alistair Driver

The NPA has hit out at plans within Government to delay import checks on goods from the EU yet again, warning that this exposes the UK to a potentially devastating outbreak of African swine fever (ASF).

ASF GermanyBureaucratic and costly checks on food and live animals travelling from the UK to the EU came into force on January 1, 2021. Yet, after three delays, the equivalent checks on goods coming the other way are not due to come into force until July 1, already disadvantaging the UK food and farming sector for 18 months and exposing farmers to unacceptable disease risk.

According to a report in the Financial Times, the Government is now exploring yet another delay to these post-Brexit border checks to try and protect the supply chain from rising costs, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Brexit opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg reportedly argued at a private meeting this week that one advantage of leaving the EU would be to allow Britain to apply only loose checks on imports. 

Senior figures in Number 10 are said to be ‘sympathetic’ to the idea of a ‘grace period’ for EU import checks, with Mr Rees-Mogg receiving vocal support from Brexit minister Lord David Frost, who said he predicted the move, which he suggested needed to be more permanent.

“I am fully supportive of @Jacob_Rees_Mogg in pushing it. But...we should end the fiction of a delay. Stop pretending we must do what the EU does, and get right such limited controls as we do need,” he wrote on Twitter.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is said to have not yet made a firm decision, but is clearly under a lot of pressure to make the change. 

Competitive disadvantage and disease risk

NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said the delay in imposing the checks so far was putting British farmers at an unfair competitive disadvantage with their EU counterparts.

“Delaying the checks further will only extend this deeply unfair trading environment we face – and will continue to raise the question as to exactly whose side this Government is on?

“But that is not our biggest worry. African swine fever continues to spread more widely in Europe. It is now present in Italy and Germany, having been confined to eastern Europe for many years.

“Every day that import controls are delayed, the risk of animal disease entering the UK and reaching our livestock via affected product increases. ASF is getting nearer and nearer – and we need to up our defences, not give a free pass to products from anywhere in the EU that could be carrying the virus.

“We note this is about cost. It is worth Mr Rees-Mogg bearing in mind that the last notifiable disease outbreak in the UK, foot-and-mouth in 2001, cost the public purse £3 billion. We urge him and the Prime Minister to consider the unintended consequences of their actions.”

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has also expressed 'serious concerns' that the UK Government is considering whether a fourth delay to the post-Brexit border checks. 

Deeply misguided

The BVA is warning that delaying checks could have serious consequences for the UK’s biosecurity and increase the threat of the incursion of devastating diseases such as African Swine Fever. 

BVA’s senior vice president James Russell recently gave evidence on border readiness to Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, at which he highlighted the critical role of Official Veterinarians in carrying out checks on live animals and animal products coming into Great Britain.  This work has become particularly vital now that the UK operates outside of the EU’s biosecurity and assurance systems.

Mr Russell said: “If this extension is allowed to go ahead it will be the fourth delay and open the door even further to the potential incursion of African Swine Fever, which is spreading rapidly and has already had a catastrophic impact on animal health and agricultural industry in parts of Europe, Asia and Africa.  

"Official Veterinarians working at the border act as the country’s first line of defence of biosecurity, and we feel it would be deeply misguided to push back the need for these vital checks even further and in so doing weaken this layer of protection for both animal and public health.

“We’ve also made the point that the veterinary profession needs certainty and clear dates to work towards instead of yet more shifting timeframes. Given the ongoing capacity challenges in the workforce it’s really important that we can prepare and allocate resource where it’s most needed.”