Shoppers have been warned to expect price hikes and shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables, even if Boris Johnson succeeds in striking a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) hit out after the government admitted traders will face multiple border checks on almost all goods from January – even if a no-deal Brexit is avoided.
Andrew Opie, the BRC’s director of food, said higher prices and some empty supermarket shelves were the inevitable consequences, without a dramatic upgrade of channel ports.
“This is going to hit us in January - that’s our peak import season for things like fresh fruit and vegetables,” he warned.
“Customers are really going to see the problems on supermarket shelves unless we get that infrastructure.”
The stark warning came after Michael Gove finally lifted the lid on the realities of leaving the single market and customs union, after the issue was ducked during the election campaign.
He highlighted checks on food and goods of animal origin, customs declarations and the need for safety and security certificates – while admitting new IT systems will not be ready until 2025.
Mr Opie said the BRC was braced for checks on vehicles and drivers and, crucially, on food which meant “thousands of vehicles” being held at Dover and other ports.
Although the checks might take as little as two minutes, even that would trigger 17-mile tailbacks at Dover without new infrastructure – and there was very little space for holding lorries.
Asked of shoppers should expect “empty shelves”, Mr Opie told BBC Radio 4: “There will definitely be a problem with availability if we don’t see a massive upgrade of how those facilities work.
“Also, let’s not forget, additional friction will lead to additional costs and that will impact on consumers as well.”
The comments lay bare how what were long predicted to be the horrors from crashing out of the EU with no agreement are now thought likely even if a deal is struck.
The prime minister has abandoned Theresa May’s promise of frictionless trade in favour of a loose ‘Canada-style’ agreement with the EU, allowing the UK to break free of some of its rules. “Boris Johnson's deal is very different,” Raoul Ruparel, Mrs May's former Europe adviser, told Sky News.
"Boris Johnson's deal is closer to no trade agreement than to membership, whereas May's was closer to membership than no agreement.
“It is a big step down from the May deal because she wanted to avoid border friction and customs checks and regulatory checks.”