Scottish seafood industry groups on Friday demanded urgent assistance from the UK government after complaining of serious disruption to EU shipments over the past week that raised fears about the survival of some exporters.
Scotland Food and Drink, Seafood Scotland and the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation appealed to the UK to work with Brussels toward “lighter touch” regulation of exports to the EU following major delays since Britain left the bloc’s single market and customs union on December 31.
“Confusion over paperwork, the extra documentation needed and IT problems have all contributed to delays and hold-ups,” said the groups in a joint statement.
Shipping companies including DFDS have suspended services to France until Monday at the earliest for smaller exporters that send their seafood on lorries together with those of other producers, in a practice known as groupage.
Some of the delays are seen as mainly teething issues that will ease as companies become more familiar with paperwork, but exporters said it was unclear how quickly or how fully they could be resolved.
James Withers, Scotland Food and Drink chief executive, said the Brexit disruption combined with the effect of the coronavirus crisis and a closure of the French border last month meant some export businesses were unlikely to survive the month.
“January looks incredibly difficult for most of the wild-catch seafood exporters,” he added.
Jimmy Buchan, chief executive of the Scottish Seafood Association, which represents seafood processors, said exporters had suffered a “perfect storm” in the first week outside the EU single market and customs union.
Companies used to frictionless trade with mainland Europe had struggled to correctly fill in a barrage of new paperwork and delays to shipments had meant some EU customers had rejected fish as no longer fresh enough, he added.
“We’ve gone from a one-day overnight delivery service to, in some instances, a four to five day delivery service this week,” said Mr Buchan.
Donna Fordyce, chief executive of Seafood Scotland, accused the UK government of failing to put in place a “workable system” for Brexit-created red tape “despite numerous warnings that there would be issues”.
Asked about such complaints, the UK government accused the Scottish administration — which is responsible for implementation of much of the new Brexit paperwork — of failing to put in place adequate systems.
“The Scottish government has persistently refused to accept the democratic vote to leave the EU, but that does not allow them to abdicate their responsibilities to Scottish businesses,” said David Duguid, UK minister for Scotland.
The Scottish government said it had been “doing its utmost” to help companies navigate the new procedures.
“The UK government chose not to extend the transition period and only completed the Brexit deal days before the end of the transition period, making it impossible for businesses to properly prepare,” said Michael Russell, Scottish external affairs secretary.
The fishing industry’s warnings were delivered as Michael Gove, UK Cabinet Office minister, warned of increased risk of border disruption next week as the number of lorries crossing the English Channel increases following the lull around Christmas and the new year.
He urged hauliers and exporters to ensure paperwork was in order before travelling.
“The real challenge and potential for significant disruption starts next week when we expect that the number of lorries heading to the border may return to normal levels,” said Mr Gove.
However Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association said the sheer complexity of paperwork, particularly for agrifood products, was defeating many hauliers despite their best efforts.
“The government keeps telling everyone to ‘get ready’ — the reality is that everyone knows they’re supposed to get their paperwork in order, but . . . this is highly complicated stuff,” he added.
Some hauliers have reported paperwork issues on arrival in Calais despite having made successful customs pre-declarations that have enabled them to board ferries from Dover to France.
One UK haulier who invested heavily in pre-Brexit preparations said his company had had a load of chilled meat stuck in Calais since Thursday afternoon.
“We thought we had completed all the paperwork correctly, but even now we are still not 100 per cent clear why we’re stuck,” said the haulier.
Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Manchester and Robert Wright in London