Deliveries of fresh Scottish seafood to the EU have been halted until 18 January, after post-Brexit problems with health checks, IT systems and customs documents caused a huge backlog.
Scottish fishing has been plunged into crisis, as lorry-loads of live seafood and fresh fish – from salmon to monkfish and langoustines – destined for shops and restaurants in France, Spain and other countries have been rejected because they are taking too long to arrive.
The industry’s biggest logistics provider, DFDS, pointed to delays regarding health certificates, issues with the IT system interface between the group and local authorities, and incorrect or missing customs documentation from customers.
New Brexit rules require every box of seafood and fish to be offloaded from lorries and inspected by vets before it leaves Scotland. It has taken business owners five hours per lorry to obtain a health certificate, which is required to apply for other customs paperwork. If the issues are not resolved soon, some fear the trade, worth more than £1bn to Scottish businesses, could collapse.
Faced with the backlog, DFDS suspended its “groupage export service” – which allows several exporters to group products together in a single consignment – last Friday, a week after the UK’s departure from the EU. It said it wanted to fix IT issues and train more staff to help its customers to get the customs documentation right.
DFDS said it expected to resume deliveries next Monday, but the service would take considerably longer than before Brexit, and highlighted the importance of 100% correct paperwork.
Goods sent off on day 1, for example from Larkhall near Glasgow, are now being scheduled to arrive in Boulogne on day 3 – one to two days longer than it took to send goods to France before Brexit.
Customers have been told to wait before sending orders, until they have received written clearance and completed a “summary control document” for each export dispatch. DFDS said: “By working together we aim to have a robust service running very soon again.”
Jimmy Buchan, the chief executive of the Scottish Seafood Association, told the Guardian the problems were partly caused by the “untried and untested” new IT system, which went live on 28 December when the industry was on holiday. “We were thrown in at the deep end. We’ve had two years to prepare for this and government are standing back and saying: ‘This is what you wished for.’”
He suggested setting up an independent clearing house for Europe in Scotland, which “clears seafood on Scotland’s soil, and it doesn’t have to stop again until it arrives in France”. He said this would save valuable time and could enable the industry to make overnight deliveries again.
The Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, told MPs that Britain needed to secure easy access to Europe for the Scottish seafood industry. “[Regarding] the specific issue of seafood supplies, because of their perishable nature it’s absolutely vital that we ensure the smoothest possible access to European and other markets,” he said in parliament.
At the same time, the UK government proposed to fast-track empty supermarket food lorries returning to Europe to reload, amid concerns that disruption at ports could lead to food supply shortages, the Financial Times reported (paywall). A consultation document sent to the industry by the agriculture ministry on Tuesday said “the potential for further disruption remains high”.
It said: “Given the potential for border delays to impact supply chains over the next few weeks, we are proposing an emergency contingency measure … to expedite the return of empty food lorries from the UK to the EU where they can be restocked with supplies.”