LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom will not introduce full border checks with the European Union on Jan. 1 after British ministers faced pressure from businesses not to compound the crisis sparked by the coronavirus outbreak, the Financial Times newspaper said.
Britain will instead put in place a temporary “light-touch regime” at ports such as Dover for incoming EU goods, the newspaper reported, adding this would happen whether or not there is a Brexit free trade agreement with the EU.
The newspaper said officials had conceded, however, that goods flowing to the EU from Britain could face full checks as they enter France.
The development would mark a U-turn from February when Britain said it planned to introduce import controls on EU goods at the border.
Companies have long called on the government to give them more clarity about what new border checks will be in force at the end of this year, when the status-quo transition period with the EU ends after Britain left the bloc in January.
Negotiations on a free trade deal as part of a future relationship agreement have all but stalled, with some officials hoping a virtual meeting between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday will offer an opportunity to break the impasse.
The Financial Times cited unidentified officials as saying an announcement on the border checks could be made on Friday.
Britain has stepped up preparations for leaving the EU’s customs union and single market at the end of the year, reinforcing teams working on Brexit after some officials were diverted to tackling the coronavirus outbreak.
But critics say the country is unprepared for the end of the transition, with some trade experts saying the government has yet to employ the required number of officials or build the necessary infrastructure to allow the new border to operate.
“The shift to a light touch regime was pretty inevitable,” said Sam Lowe, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.
“Unless the UK takes steps to ease the flow of traffic at roll-on roll-off ports, it could be complete chaos, with or without a trade agreement. COVID-19 has also made things worse … and government just hasn’t had the time to fully prepare itself for a full fat border.”
The FT said the government’s approach would be similar to the so-called no-deal arrangements drawn up in September last year, which prioritised flow of goods over border formalities.
Agricultural goods will not enter Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) in or near the port and animal products may not immediately be required to have health certificates.
The plans would mean only controlled goods face would immediate checks whereas industrial goods would be expected to benefit from transitional measures, delaying the need for customs declarations and postpone customs duty payments.
Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Elizabeth Piper in London; Editing by Chris Reese, Grant McCool and Alison Williams