Brandon Lewis is acting like the emperor with no clothes by claiming Brexit is not impacting upon Irish Sea trade, a DUP minister has said.
Agriculture minister Edwin Poots was reacting after the Northern Ireland Secretary suggested depleted shelves witnessed in the region’s supermarkets was down to Covid disruption, and not the new trading arrangements.
Mr Lewis has repeatedly insisted that the Northern Ireland Protocol, which sees the region continuing to abide by many EU single market and customs rules, has not created economic barriers on goods moving from Great Britain.
The protocol requires health certifications on animal-based food products entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The new customs rules also require declarations on many items being shipped into the region from Britain.
On Tuesday, Mr Lewis said shortages of some products in the weeks since the transition period ended were due to the knock-on effects of UK trade with continental Europe being temporarily halted pre-Christmas due to concerns over the new Covid variant.
“Brandon Lewis is clearly going about like the emperor with no clothes; however, it is not a small boy who is pointing it out, but the entire crowd,” Mr Poots told the Stormont Assembly.
“He really needs to reflect on that. It is not a good policy to go about saying something that is blatantly not the case.
“We know what the problems are and where they emanate from, and we know that those issues need to be dealt with.”
Asked about empty supermarket shelves, the Secretary of State told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “That’s actually something we’ve seen across other parts of the UK as well, nothing to do with leaving the EU, nothing to do with the Northern Irish protocol, but actually to do with some of the challenges we saw with Covid at the Port of Dover just before Christmas and the impact that had on supply lines coming through.
“I have to say supermarket supply lines at the moment are in good fettle.”
A representative of the retail industry said the end of the Brexit transition period had forced a “difficult adjustment” on retailers in Northern Ireland.
Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said: “The big takeaway for the Secretary of State and the UK Government is making sure that Great Britain suppliers who supply into Northern Ireland do make sure that they comply with the paperwork and make sure they are aware that how they trade with Northern Ireland has changed.
“There was certainly a knock-on effect – the reality is that this new regime we have in relation to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland certainly has been a very difficult adjustment.”
Mr Roberts, who represents independent small and medium-sized firms, not large supermarket chains, said traders have faced a “challenging” period but are adapting to extra red tape created by the protocol.
He said they are also attempting to source more products locally.
He said: “We are confident we will get through it.
“Members have taken a very solution-based approach and independent retailers are probably, out of all the sectors – we are probably the most adaptable to change.
“I would be optimistic that it will, to use a Northern Irish expression, collapse into place.”
Hauliers’ representatives in Northern Ireland have also suggested the problems are being resolved.
Mr Lewis said there was no reason for lorries to return empty from Great Britain due to excessive paperwork.
Smaller food traders have struggled to adapt to problems with multiple consignments travelling in one lorry, meaning loads have to be resealed and certified by officials several times.
Mr Lewis said: “Even on foodstuffs, there’s no reason for that to be the case.”
A soft-touch three-month period has been negotiated with the EU for regulating supermarket goods transported from the rest of the UK.
Mr Lewis said the UK is working with the EU to get a “permanent resolution” before that ends.