The chief executives of the UK’s largest grocers have warned the government of “significant disruption to food supplies” to Northern Ireland after March 31 unless there is a closer agreement with the EU.

In a letter to Cabinet Office secretary Michael Gove, seen by Retail Week, six major grocers warned that supply disruptions would “become inevitable” if the government pushes forward with “unworkable” proposals governing trade after the current grace period expires. 

Co-signed by the chief executives of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Marks & Spencer, Iceland, the Co-op and BRC head Helen Dickinson, the letter says the government needs “to take a number of steps to work with us to ensure the long term sustainability of the Northern Irish grocery market”.

These steps include setting up a dedicated Cabinet Office group coordinating government departments such as Defra, HMRC and the FSA; use grocers’ supply chain experts to “develop the best solution to ensure it addresses the challenges of operating a just in time supply chain”; and agree on an extension of the grace period with the EU. 

The retailers said they had all “invested significantly in the last few months to avoid disruption” but added that “we cannot stress enough that we need time to find and implement that solution”.

A solution would also require the government to have “an open discussion with the EU explaining why we can’t accommodate changes to the current approach to transporting food to Northern Ireland but stressing we are working towards a robust system as quickly as possible”.

The letter follows reports of food shortages and empty shelves in Northern Irish supermarkets. 

Speaking last week, Morrisons’ chief executive David Potts warned that issues with supply chains between the EU, the UK and Northern Ireland would almost certainly get worse as time went on as grocers worked through their Christmas surplus supply. 

The Food and Drink Federation has warned that problems being seen in Northern Ireland will soon be replicated in the rest of the UK. Director general Ian Wright told MPs today that a large member’s food consignment to the EU went from taking three hours to import to five days due to new paperwork at the border. 

A government spokesman said: “A new dedicated team in government has already been set up and will be working with supermarkets, the food industry and the Northern Ireland executive to develop ways to streamline the movement of goods.

“The grace period for supermarkets and their suppliers is working well, goods continue to flow effectively between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and we are working intensively with industry as new requirements come in.”