Brexit: Gove U-turns on plan to immediately introduce full border checks with EU

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.

But, in scrapping plans to immediately introduce full import controls on EU goods in the new year, Mr Gove said Britain would now phase in changes so businesses hampered by Covid-19 can have the "time to adjust".

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The Union flag is taken down outside the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, ahead of the UK leaving the European Union at 11pm on Friday.
A member of protocol carries the folded Union flag past the EU flag after it was removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
A member of protocol carries the folded Union flag after it was removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
The Union flag is lowered and removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Pro-Brexit supporters gather in Parliament Square, London, as the UK prepared to leave the European Union at 11pm UK time. Picture date: Friday January 31, 2020. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/Empics
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage celebrates during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The U.K. officially departs the EU at 11 p.m. local time, midnight in Brussels (2300 GMT, 6 p.m. EST). The move comes 3½ years after the country voted by a margin of 52%-48% to walk away from the club that it had joined in 1973. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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A member of protocol removes the Union flag from the atrium of the Europa building in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)
Großbritannien hat die EU verlassen. Während Hunderte Brexit-Anhänger in London jubelten, wurde in Schottland und Nordirland protestiert.
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A countdown to Brexit timer and the colors of the British Union flag illuminate the exterior of 10 Downing street, the residence of the British Prime Minister, in London, England, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
The Union flag is folded and removed after being lowered from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Brexit supporters trample on a European Union flag during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A projection appears on a cliff in Ramsgate, southern England, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Brexit supporters celebrate during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain leaves the European Union after 47 years, leaping into an unknown future in historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A projection appears on a cliff in Ramsgate, southern England, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
French gendarmes walk by as British living in France attend a gathering to express their sprit of Europe despite the withdrawal Brexit agreement and the UK's departure from the EU, in a street closed to the British Embassy in Paris, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain leaves the European Union after 47 years, leaping into an unknown future in a historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
An image of the clock face of 'Big Ben' is projected onto the exterior of 10 Downing street, the residence of the British Prime Minister, in London as Britain left the European Union, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. With little fuss and not much fanfare, Britain left the European Union on Friday after 47 years of membership, taking a leap into the unknown in a historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
An image of the clock face of 'Big Ben' is projected onto the exterior of 10 Downing street, the residence of the British Prime Minister, in London as Britain left the European Union, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. With little fuss and not much fanfare, Britain left the European Union on Friday after 47 years of membership, taking a leap into the unknown in a historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
A Brexit supporter celebrates during a rally in Parliament square in London, England as Britain left the European Union on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Anti-Brexit protesters gather outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
Protesters from the campaign group Border Communities Against Brexit take part in a demonstration in Carrickcarnon on the Irish border, Ireland, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Protesters from the campaign group Border Communities Against Brexit take part in a demonstration in Carrickcarnon on the Irish border, Ireland, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Brexit supporters gather during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU at 23:00 GMT Friday, the first nation in the bloc to do so. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Britain's Union flag is lowered form its pole outside the European Parliament Friday Jan. 31, 2020, in Strasbourg, eastern France. The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU at 23:00 GMT Friday, the first nation in the bloc to do so. (AP Photo)
Brexit supporters pose with the Union Jack at the Cenotaph, in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Rain drops are seen on the umbrella of a Brexit supporter during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Passengers arrive to embark on the last Eurostar train of the day at Gare du Nord Station in Paris to go to St Pancras International train station in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The U.K. is due to leave the EU on Friday, the first nation to leave the bloc since its inception. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
The Union flag is lowered and removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Anti-Brexit protesters gather outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
The five-year old Elisa Saemann, left, and her seven-year old sister Katie hold a placard during a rally by anti-Brexit protesters outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
A Brexit supporter holds a British flag during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Anti-Brexit protesters gather outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
A projection by the Mayor of London’s office displaying 'London - everyone welcome' is seen at Piccadilly Circus in London, Britain January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage speaks to the media through a fence as he celebrates Britain leaving the EU on Brexit day, at Parliament Square in London, Britain, January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A person pours a beer on the European Union flag lying on the ground and covered with a mud on Brexit day in London, Britain January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
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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."

UK economic growth (GDP)
(PA Graphics)

Mr Sefcovic told a briefing in Brussels that the EU "remains open to such an extension", but said Mr Gove had been "very clear, unequivocal" that the UK will not seek one "so we take this decision as a definitive one".

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 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.

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