In Latest Brexit U-Turn, Government Adopts "Light-Touch" Border Checks For Food, Medicine Imported From EU

Following a round of leaks published earlier in the week, the HMG confirmed on Friday that it will be adopting "light-touch" border controls for critical products like medicine and foodstuffs to prevent any unnecessary delays that could trigger shortages in the UK, which is still shellshocked from the coronavirus lockdown.

BBG, the FT and others reported that BoJo's government "backed down" from threats to impose full border checks beginning at the start of next year regardless of whether a free trade deal had been reached. Instead, government ministers will formulate a short term "light touch" plan for emergency goods to prevent piling on added strain to business.

Even if a trade deal is reached, by leaving the EU, the UK must now implement its own customs barrier, something it neglected to do when it was a member of the bloc.

Later on Friday, the British press confirmed that the government would soon unveil its plans for merchants allowing them a 6-month reprieve starting at the beginning of next year to get their house in order.

Before the virus, Britain had planned to impose full checks on all goods entering the country from the European Union from Jan. 1, part of Johnson's press to implement the public's 'vision' of Brexit as quickly as possible following the end of the transition period. This is partly to give the UK more leverage in its negotiations with the bloc.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will hold a call on June 15 aimed at injecting momentum into the talks.

With just six months to go until the UK formally departs the EU, officials have also struggled to recruit even a fraction of the 50,000 customs agents the transport industry believes will be necessary to prevent troubling delays at British ports in Dover and elsewhere as the UK leaves both the single market and the customs union. The EU will remain the UK's biggest trading partner after the split.

"This would be welcome news for many businesses, which simply aren’t ready for chaotic changes with our biggest trading partner at the end of the year," said Josh Hardie, deputy director-general of a massive British trade group.

To be sure, British companies shipping products to the EU will face full checks on exports unless the bloc reciprocates the UK's light-touch plan. There's also the chance it could face a legal challenge since the light-touch plan might not confirm with WTO rules.

The "significant" policy U-turn, as the FT described it, has been driven by the unavoidable reality that the coronavirus has created new obstacles to the divorce process. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, confirmed that the "light touch" approach for essential goods will be implemented regardless of the outcome of negotiations with the EU and its lead trade negotiator.

"We recognise the impact that coronavirus has had on UK businesses,” an anonymous Whitehall official told the FT. "As we take back control of our laws and borders at the end of this year, we will take a pragmatic and flexible approach."