Business groups welcomed how the UK and EU had agreed to continue talks on a trade accord, but complained it was impossible for companies to prepare properly for Britain’s departure from the bloc in 20 days time given they had no clarity on whether there would be an agreement or a no-deal Brexit.
The British Retail Consortium meanwhile said shops had plenty of supplies, including toilet rolls, and warned households against panic buying.
Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the run-up to the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31 had become a “very frustrating time for business as they anxiously wait for decisions about the terms of trade with the EU come January 1”.
But he added that if a few more hours or days made the difference to the UK and EU securing a trade deal, “keep going — and get an agreement that delivers clarity and certainty to businesses and trade on both sides”.
Tony Danker, CBI director-general, said there was a need to “plan in parallel for 1 January, deal or no-deal”. He called for “grace periods” for companies so that they can adjust to the rules that apply from January 1, with or without a trade deal.
UK business leaders also want financial support to help industries that have already been hit hard during the pandemic.
Allies of chancellor Rishi Sunak said Treasury support for businesses to cope with the coronavirus crisis, including state-backed loans, was available in the event of any Brexit-related disruption, but that he was also prepared to consider limited “sector specific” aid.
They added that aid might be available for livestock farmers, who face EU tariffs in a no-deal Brexit, but not carmakers, which would also be hit by duties.
Tim Harrap, a Somerset-based exporter of dairy products, strongly criticised the state of the Brexit deal talks, saying the “parties involved in this debacle need to be hung, drawn and quartered. Very disgruntled is a polite way of putting it”.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said that UK and EU negotiators needed “to finish the job and agree the deal we all so desperately need, without further delay”.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said that while no amount of preparation by retailers could entirely prevent Brexit-related disruption, the public did not need to stockpile.
“Retailers are doing everything they can to prepare — increasing the stock of tins, toilet rolls and other longer-life products,” she added.
Ms Dickinson said that in a no-deal Brexit, the public would face more than £3bn in food tariffs because retailers would have no choice but to pass on some of the additional costs.
Referring to the trade talks, she added: “Both sides must double down and do what is necessary to agree a zero-tariff agreement, or else it will be the public that pay the price of this failure.”
A senior food industry executive familiar with the no-deal Brexit preparations by the government said that it had been made clear to Boris Johnson in recent days that food shortages would be significant.