Checks on imports from the EU into the UK are to be delayed by several months to give businesses time to prepare for the large increase in red tape.
The British government's original plan -- taking into account the COVID-19 pandemic -- was to phase in checks on EU goods over two dates, April 1 and July 1 this year.
Now, under the new government plan announced on Thursday, the first checks won't take place until October 1, others will begin on January 1, 2022, with the final category starting in March next year.
On Friday, the UK's Office for National Statistics said that British exports to the EU fell by 40.7% in January, while imports were down 28.8%.
According to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, the UK's departure from the EU's Single Market and Customs Union at the start of 2021 brought "the biggest change in the UK’s trading relationships for decades".
Despite spending heavily on new staff, infrastructure and IT systems, the UK government admits more time is needed before full checks on goods coming from Europe. It stresses the impact of the pandemic as having influenced Thursday's announcement.
"Although we recognise that many in the border industry and many businesses have been investing time and energy to be ready on time, and indeed we in Government were confident of being ready on time, we have listened to businesses who have made a strong case that they need more time to prepare," Gove said in the government's statement.
The first checks originally due to begin next month, on animal products such as meat and eggs, will now start in October. A wider range of customs, health and safety declarations will follow from January, while checks on live animals and low-risk plants and plant products will begin next March.
The EU immediately began imposing new customs formalities and regulatory controls on goods sent from the UK in January. Some British exports to the EU have been severely disrupted due to the new bureaucracy or have even ground to a halt because of curtailed market access.
British industry groups, which had warned that similar disruption faced importers of EU products into the UK, have welcomed the move. Fears were expressed that shortages of some food and drink products, on which Britain is heavily reliant from the EU, could kick in just as pubs and restaurants opened up post-lockdown.
"Businesses across the food supply chain will breathe a sigh of relief that the looming prospect of additional red tape and uncertainty has been delayed past the crucial spring and summer months," tweeted Shane Brennan, Chief Executive of the logistics group the Cold Chain Federation.
"Delaying import checks makes sense, we’re not ready. But what about exporters?" asked James Withers, CEO of the industry group Scotland Food & Drink, via Twitter.
"Brexit currently means costly red tape and huge non-tariff barriers for UK exporters. But a free ride for EU businesses selling to us," he added.
The immediate impact of new post-Brexit arrangements have brought renewed tension between the UK and the EU.
Last week the British government moved unilaterally to extend a grace period on some food checks from Britain into Northern Ireland, which continues to follow some EU rules. The EU accused the UK of violating the deal and vowed to take legal action.