Minister accused of scaremongering over hospital food shortage warning

Northern Ireland’s health service suppliers have additional transit routes and stockpiling plans organised.

Empty food shelves at a Tesco store in Banbridge, Northern Ireland
Empty food shelves at a Tesco store in Banbridge, Northern Ireland

A Stormont minister who warned hospitals and schools risk running out of food when post-Brexit Irish Sea trade arrangements are fully implemented has been accused of scaremongering.

Northern Ireland’s health service suppliers have additional transit routes and stockpiling plans organised.

Hauliers said they were pressing for speedy action to avoid “cliff edge” paperwork change later this year but matters were improving.

DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots envisaged a major crisis when a short-term grace period limiting the amount of red tape required to move retail food products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland runs out at the end of March.

Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry said: “This is scaremongering on steroids this morning from Edwin Poots.

“There’s no prospect that we’re going to see a complete collapse of the food supply in Northern Ireland, it’s just not going to happen.”

Once the exemption expires supermarkets will have to comply with more rigorous animal health certification processes under the terms of Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

Depleted supermarket shelves are already in evidence in Northern Ireland with the lighter-touch trade controls.

Supermarket in Co Down
Empty food shelves in Sainsbury’s store in Bangor, Co Down (Michael McHugh/PA)

Mr Poots told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show: “It was made very clear to us by the suppliers to both hospitals and schools that if the current arrangement for supermarkets isn’t extended in a few months’ time that they will not be able to supply our hospitals and schools with food.

“That is a major crisis and I have raised this with (senior Cabinet minister) Michael Gove.”

A spokeswoman for Northern Ireland’s Department of Health said the Business Services Organisation (BSO) which supplies hospitals had signed food contracts will also allow for flexibility and substitution for example, a move from fresh to tinned or frozen for example should that be required.

She said: “BSO has confirmed that their suppliers do have a range of contingencies in place such as additional stockholding, use of alternative transit routes or moving to local supply.”

The department said it had not received any reports from any of the region’s health trusts flagging major issues related to food shortages or supply difficulties.

She added the BSO had worked with trust catering managers to agree “a core list of ambient products” that they have asked suppliers to reserve an additional four to six weeks of stock.

She said trusts also stood ready to change menus should that be required.

Brexit
Seamus Leheny said a solution was needed in the coming days and weeks (Liam McBurney/PA)

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said there was no indication from suppliers of disruption to the supply chain that would impact delivery of school meals.

Several meetings have been held with key suppliers and the only issue highlighted was one product unavailable, officials said, adding that an alternative of that product would be provided if required, .

The spokeswoman also said: “The Education Authority will continue to work closely with suppliers during this period to ensure food product availability continues to be delivered to school catering.

“At present we have no indication from our suppliers of disruption to their supply chain that would impact delivery of school meals.”

Seamus Leheny is Northern Ireland policy manager at LogisticsUK and represents hauliers.

He said: “We need to get a solution in the coming days and weeks, not leaving it to March.

“The onus is on the Government to give confidence.”

He praised the work of his members to find clarity in the days after Brexit.

“Things are improving, customs processes are improving, I am getting that daily feedback.

“That is one hurdle becoming a little bit lower for people.”

Supermarket Lidl said it was working with more than 50 suppliers in Northern Ireland and had been planning for Brexit for two years.

It added: “This local sourcing network and preparation has meant that we do not have any significant supply issues in relation to Brexit at present, and as such we’re confident our customers will be able to continue to shop all of their trusted Lidl products in our stores across the region.”

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