It may have been years in the making but an eleventh-hour Brexit trade deal could still throw Britain's biggest grocers into chaos by leaving them with just a few weeks to understand the rules, MPs have warned.
The Treasury Select Committee wrote to Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Friday to say it had serious concerns about firms' ability to make changes fast enough to be ready for an agreement with Brussels.
There is increasingly positive mood music around a possible deal, with the European Union's chief negotiator Michel Barnier staying in London longer than initially intended as negotiations continue.
But any new terms will come into effect at the start of next year – giving supermarkets already battling the fallout from coronavirus precious little time to adapt.
Treasury committee members accused the Government of leaving it dangerously late to develop the IT infrastructure needed for new rules, with testing and changes still being made now.
They added that companies still do not know which individual ports they should use for goods coming in from Europe, and warned that details about trading with Ireland are yet to be published.
"As the Brexit transition period ends and new arrangements with the EU begin to come into force in just 71 days, I've asked the Chancellor to respond to our concerns as a matter of urgency," said Tory MP Mel Stride, chairman of the committee.
The blunt assessment highlights just how last-minute some of the preparations are, with the country's supermarkets one of the first industries in the firing line.
Any disruption to their operations will be immediately felt as they risk food shortages and empty shelves. Food prices could also increase as supply is hit.
"The supply chains are in a better position than the original deadline because they have had a couple of dress rehearsals," says Clive Black, a retail analyst at Shore Capital.
"The early days of coronavirus, the queuing, the rationing and cutting ranges – that is an important experience.
"That being said, if there was a harsh Brexit, given we have got Christmas ahead of that, the industry could be thrown into quite a bit of turmoil."
The grocers have hoarded extra stock ahead of previous no-deal Brexit deadlines to navigate any short-term gaps. But warehouse space is in short supply once again as depots are overflowing with products ahead of Christmas and the second wave of coronavirus.
Learning to do without
Tesco's chairman John Allan has already warned this month of fresh food shortages which could last a few months if there is chaos at the British ports.
Most chains send lorries to supermarkets from key distribution centres across the country to deliver food, with many of the goods coming in through supply chains linked to both the Continent and Ireland across the Irish Sea.
Allan insisted there is no need for the public to stockpile, but said: "There may be some things we have to learn to do without for a few weeks, possibly a few months after Brexit."
British stockpiling helped push some supermarkets, such as Tesco , to huge profit increases as they fought for market share.
Government must avoid tariffs, says BRC
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) estimates that supermarkets could be slapped with at least £3bn of new trade tariffs on food, a cost that would push prices up.
Currently the UK doesn't pay tariffs on goods, including food products, coming in from other EU countries. However, this could change after Brexit, piling on extra expense.
At the moment, the UK imports about 30pc of its food from the EU and another 10pc from other countries.
Helen Dickinson, boss of the British Retail Consortium, says the threat of a disorderly Brexit is deeply concerning and bureaucracy will create new problems even if a deal is done.
"New checks and red tape that will apply from January 1 will create additional disruption in the supply of many goods that come from or through the EU," she says.
"The Government must do what is necessary to agree to a zero-tariff agreement, or else it will be the public that pays the price."
Should disruption at the border occur on a large scale, supermarkets have the option to fly more products in as air freight capacity has been freed up by tourism coming to a halt. It will not necessarily be cheaper, though.
Supermarkets were forced to impose limits on some items during lockdown, when demand for essentials such as toilet roll surged from queuing shoppers. Some supermarkets have since re-introduced limits as cases rise again.
Then there is the issue of access to labour, another key factor for the UK food manufacturing industry as around a third of its workforce are EU migrants – the highest of any industry and eight percentage points more than the second-most dependent, according to PwC.
Greater reliance on UK workers could also push up wages, forcing some businesses to rethink their models.
Despite glaring gaps in the guidance and preparations, one supermarket chief executive said that ministers have kept businesses informed and are being proactive about helping firms with their planning in the event of a no-deal Brexit. On Thursday, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove wrote to several grocers to offer reassurance.
It is not all doom and gloom either. Some retailers such as Morrisons have been granted special customs check status to streamline the journey, although the supermarket imports less than many rivals.
There is no silver bullet for mitigating the external shock from a no-deal Brexit . And supermarkets, having just about recovered from the impact of the pandemic, will have to focus even harder to keep prices down and stay competitive at a time of continued upheaval and structural shifts in the industry – even if a deal is signed.
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