Health and education officials in Northern Ireland have denied claims hospitals and schools risk running out of food when post-Brexit Irish Sea trade arrangements are fully implemented.
Stormont’s Democratic Unionist agriculture minister Edwin Poots said he envisaged a major crisis when a grace period limiting the amount of red tape required to move retail food products from Great Britain finishes at the end of March.
His critics accused him of scaremongering.
That is a major crisis and I have raised this with (senior Cabinet minister) Michael Gove
Stormont’s education department said: “At present we have no indication from our suppliers of disruption to their supply chain that would impact delivery of school meals.”
Health service suppliers have additional transit routes and stockpiling plans organised.
Hauliers said challenges posed in transporting goods were reducing.
Once the three-month exemption period expires, supermarkets will have to comply with more rigorous animal health certification processes under the terms of Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, which have caused disruption this month.
Depleted supermarket shelves are already in evidence in Northern Ireland with the lighter-touch trade controls.
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 organisation which supplies hospitals had signed contracts allowing for flexibility and substitution, like a move from fresh to tinned or frozen, should that be required.
She said: “Business Services Organisation (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 has not received reports from any health trusts flagging major issues involving shortages or supply difficulties.
Seamus Leheny, who is Northern Ireland policy manager at Logistics UK and represents hauliers, 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.”
As part of the protocol, the region has remained in the EU single market for goods. That requires strict health checks on animal-based food products being shipped from Great Britain.
Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster said there should be a solution found for the end of the grace period and the matter had been raised with her agriculture minister during meetings with supermarkets.
She added: “(Mr Poots) is not saying there is an issue now, because there is not an issue in relation to schools and hospitals, but when it has been raised at various meetings we need to take it seriously and get a solution to it.”
Stormont Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she was glad to say that there has been a restoration of the flow and trade of food.
“I believe as of Tuesday past we were back to over 95% of normal food flow so that probably would be even more improved as we speak today.”