Michael Gove has backtracked on plans to introduce full border checks with the EU when the Brexit transition period ends, and defied warnings that it would be “extraordinarily reckless” not to request an extension.
The Cabinet Office minister formally told the EU on Friday that the UK would not ask for a delay despite concerns the departure would compound the economic chaos inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said “the moment for extension has now passed” despite a stark warning from the first ministers of Scotland and Wales that the move would lead to “avoidable” business closures and redundancies.
The move came as the UK economy contracted by more than a fifth in the first full month of lockdown, as shops and factories closed and workers were sent home to slow the virus’s spread.
The Office for National Statistics said that economic activity was down by 20.4% in April, the largest drop in a single month since records began in 1997, and worse than many experts were forecasting.
After Mr Gove met with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, the Cabinet Office said a “flexible and pragmatic approach” would now see border checks between Britain and the EU introduced in three stages.
“We have informed the EU today that we will not extend the transition period. The moment for extension has now passed,” Mr Gove said.
“At the end of this year, we will control our own laws and borders, which is why we are able to take the sovereign decision to introduce arrangements in a way that gives businesses impacted by coronavirus time to adjust.”
Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon and Wales’s Mark Drakeford wrote to Boris Johnson calling for an extension past January 1, saying: “We believe that exiting the transition period at the end of the year would be extraordinarily reckless.
“It would pile a further very significant economic and social shock on top of the Covid-19 crisis, hitting businesses whose reserves in many cases have already been exhausted, leading to more business closures and redundancies,” they said.
“But in this case, the shock would be avoidable.”
From January, tariffs will need to be paid on all imports and traders importing standard goods must prepare for basic custom requirements and will have up to six months to complete customs declarations.
From April, meat, dairy and other animal and regulated plant products will require pre-notification and relevant health documentation.
In July 2021, traders will have to make declarations at the point of importation and pay tariffs.
The Confederation of British Industry said the phased introduction was a “sensible and pragmatic” move.
The Cabinet Office said the approach does not apply to Northern Ireland, which is covered by the Withdrawal Agreement, and that a £50 million support package would boost the capacity of customs intermediaries.
UK sources were keen to depict Mr Gove’s meeting as the last formal opportunity to request an extension to the transition period, as it is the last scheduled meeting of the joint committee before the July 1 deadline.
But both sides can agree to hold another such meeting, where under the Withdrawal Agreement a delay could be asked for.
A virtual summit between the Prime Minister and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen to try to break the deadlock in trade negotiations has been scheduled for Monday.
The negotiating teams have also agreed to “an intensified timetable” for July, with possible discussions in person if public health guidelines enable them during the coronavirus pandemic.