Britain risks being hit by African Swine Fever because of Brexit-bungling delay of import checks, warn experts

·5-min read
Jacob Rees-Mogg as Britain is hit by more Brexit chaos  (PA Wire)
Jacob Rees-Mogg as Britain is hit by more Brexit chaos (PA Wire)

Britain could be hit by African Swine Fever because of the Brexit-bungling delay of import checks into the country yet again, experts have warned on Thursday.

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) stressed delaying checks, which have already been pushed back three times, could have serious implications for animal health and British agriculture, and risks opening up the threat of diseases such as African Swine Fever spreading from the Continent.

African Swine Fever is a highly contagious viral disease of pigs which in severe outbreaks tends to have a high mortality rate.

The virus, though, does not affect people and there is no impact on human health, say Government officials.

In further evidence of the damage and chaos to Britain from Brexit, the Government dropped plans to impose further checks on goods entering the UK from the European Union until at least the end of the year.

Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said it would be “wrong to impose new administrative burdens and risk disruption at ports” and added no further import controls would be imposed on EU goods this year.

The change means restrictions on the imports of chilled meats from the EU and border checks on plant and animal products will not be introduced in July.

Port operators expressed frustration that time and money spent preparing for the new checks has been “wasted”.

Mr Rees-Mogg, a cheerleader for Brexit which has failed to deliver the much-hyped benefits trumpeted during the 2016 referendum, said a “new regime of border import controls” will be established by the end of 2023.

Responding to the latest delay, BVA Senior Vice President James Russell, said: “This move flies in the face not only of common sense, but also of the Government’s commitment to preserving high levels of animal and human health in the UK.

“Diseases such as African Swine Fever have already had a catastrophic impact on agriculture and animal health in parts of Europe and elsewhere globally.

“With the UK now being outside the EU’s integrated and highly responsive surveillance systems, we have repeatedly warned that delaying veterinary checks further could weaken vital lines of defence against future incursions.”

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, added: “It is astounding that the Government is taking such an unacceptable approach to critical checks for agri-food imports from the EU.

“These checks are absolutely crucial to the nation’s biosecurity, animal health and food safety and without them we really do leave ourselves at risk.

“For the introduction of these checks to have been delayed three times was bad enough but to now have them essentially scrapped in favour of an unknown system is unacceptable.”

Goods moving from the UK will continue to be subject to checks in the EU despite the Government deciding not to introduce the controls in Britain.

Controls which have already been introduced in the UK will remain in place.

In a statement to MPs, Mr Rees-Mogg said: “When the UK left the European Union, we regained the right to manage our own borders in a way that works for Britain.

“This includes how we manage imports into our country from overseas. British businesses and people going about their daily lives are being hit by rising costs caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine and in energy prices.

“It would therefore be wrong to impose new administrative burdens and risk disruption at ports and to supply chains at this point. The remaining import controls on EU goods will no longer be introduced this year - saving British businesses up to £1 billion in annual costs.”

The new border regime will apply equally to goods from the EU and from the rest of the world.

Mr Rees-Mogg said it will be based on “a proper assessment of risk, with a proportionate, risk-based and technologically advanced approach to controls”.

But Labour MP Hilary Benn, co-chair of the UK Trade and Business Commission, slammed the latest Government delay on checks.

“Today’s announcement is an admission by ministers that introducing their new customs controls would hamstring our economy and worsen the cost of living crisis by artificially making trade more expensive for businesses and consumers,” he said.

“Meanwhile British businesses trying to export to the EU will continue to face costs, delays and red tape which the same ministers have imposed on them.

“It is extraordinary that imports into the UK are being favoured over UK exports to the EU and this just highlights the barriers to trade that have been put in place by their thread-bare Brexit deal.”

The Government has vowed to have “the world’s best border” following the decision to leave the EU’s single market and customs union.

The controls due in July which have been abandoned include prohibitions and restrictions on the import of chilled meats from the EU, safety and security declarations, and changes to sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on plant and animal products.

Tim Morris, chief executive of the UK Major Ports Group, which represents UK port operators, said: “Many ports have been working incredibly hard and have invested over £100 million of their own money to build a network of brand new border checks to meet the requirements the Government has been insisting on for several years.

“This now looks like wasted time, effort and money to develop what we fear will be highly bespoke white elephants. Government needs to engage urgently with ports to agree how the substantial investments made in good faith can be recovered.”

Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the The Food and Drink Federation, welcomed the move in the context of supply chain disruption caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war.

“While businesses have already spent a good deal of time and money preparing for the new border regime, we welcome the clarity today’s announcement brings.

“The UK Government must now work with industry to design a new, modern and innovative border system which brings genuine benefits to businesses and consumers.”

Downing Street denied the Government was edging towards a position where it would unilaterally accept EU controls.

“That is not the approach we are taking. We are using the flexibility that the UK Government has to decide how and when to introduce this approach,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

“We think there is more work to do on a new model that better utilises data and technology. We are still committed to introducing these checks.”

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