UK food prices could go up post-Brexit due to government plans to restrict UK producers’ access to European Union (EU) workers.
Ministers on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee have urged the UK government to intervene to prevent Brexit driving up food prices up as foreign workers leave Britain.
EU nationals account for the majority of workers in key sectors including meat processing and picking crops, the EFRA’s report said.
Freedom of movement — which allows EU nationals to enter and leave a country for work and other purposes without a visa — will come to an end in the UK as exits the EU on 31 December.
Neil Parish, the chair of the committee, warned that with freedom of movement for EU citizens due to end the government was “effectively turning off the tap for employers, without giving them time to adapt.”
Parish said that as a result, many businesses face a “cliff-edge,” with no clear plan about how to move forwards.
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He added: “If British farmers and food producers can’t get the workers they need, we all risk higher food prices or more cheap imports produced to standards we wouldn’t tolerate here.”
After the transition period on 31 December, visas will be issued under a pilot scheme for seasonal agricultural workers.
EFRA’s report report urges ministers to immediately confirm the number of visas that will be issued next year under the Seasonal Workers Pilot, so farmers know whether or not they will have the staff needed to harvest their crops.
With COVID-19 and the end of the Brexit transition period, MPs said the cap should be high enough to ensure farmers will not struggle to recruit staff.
The number of foreign workers allowed in the UK to pick fruit and vegetables, could treble amid fears over rotting harvests. An expected 30,000 temporary staff will be given permits in 2021, up from 10,000 in 2020.
Additionally, the report also calls on the government to follow the advice of its own advisers and place critical roles such as butchers, meat hygiene inspectors and veterinary nurses on the Shortage Occupation List.
It comes amid ongoing negotiations between France and Britain to re-open the borders, amid continued lorry tailbacks and fears of disruption to food and medicine supplies from France’s blockade.
On Sunday and Monday several countries across the globe closed their borders on UK travellers and imposed stricter quarantine measures after a new, fast-spreading variant of the COVID-19 virus was found in Britain.
The French blockade is the most significant for UK trade with EU. According to a 2018 report by think tank Policy Exchange, around 75% of dry cargo by value in Britain is handled by just seven ports, the largest being Southampton, Felixstowe and Dover, making it the UK's third largest port by value.
Meanwhile, on Monday, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said that Britain should not be concerned about food and medicine shortages ahead of the Christmas period, after supermarkets and trade bodies sounded the alarm.
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