Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew told company bosses “it’s their businesses at stake” if they fail to get ready for new border checks when the transition ends on December 31.
He said firms were slow to get ready due to coronavirus and the subsequent recession, and after being stung by two “false alarms” when the government missed deadlines to leave the EU on March 29 and October 31, 2019.
Agnew rejected suggestions he was trying to blame companies but urged bosses to be more “energetic” about getting ready for Brexit proper.
The comments sparked an immediate backlash, given many government border systems are not yet ready and businesses have been pleading for clarity about what to actually prepare for, with negotiations on a trade deal looking likely to continue into November.
Firms face a huge change in the way they trade with Europe because the UK is leaving the EU customs union and single market, which allow for seamless cross-border trade.
Last month, Michael Gove published a reasonable worst case scenario which warned there could be queues of 7,000 lorries in Kent if not enough businesses prepare for new border checks and requirements, and just 24% do so in time.
With less than three months to go before the end of the transition, Agnew told the Commons Treasury committee: “There has been a head in the sand approach by traders which has been compounded by what I would call the quadruple whammy of two false alarms, so two extensions at the very last minute, then followed by Covid, and now followed by the recession.
“The traders are not as ready as they should be.
“And if there’s one headline I hope that comes out of this appearance today it’s to send another shot over traders’ bows to warn them that it’s their businesses that are at stake from January 1 and they really must engage in a more energetic way.”
The comments sparked immediate criticism, with Food and Drink Federation chief operating officer Tim Rycroft remarking: “A ‘head in the sand approach by traders’? That’ll go down well.”
A ‘head in the sand approach by traders’? That’ll go down well.
— Tim_FDF (@TimRycroft_FDF) October 13, 2020
Labour peer Stewart Wood said Agnew’s characterisation was “spectacularly unfair”, insisting traders had been pleading with the government for clarity on the rules.
He said: “A ‘head in the sand approach by traders’ to the upcoming end to Brexit transition is a spectacularly unfair characterisation.
“The many traders, entrepreneurs and businesses we have spoken to in our Lords EU committee work have been pleading for guidance, clarity and timelines for months.”
"A head in the sand approach by traders" to the upcoming end to #Brexit transition is a spectacularly unfair characterisation. The many traders, entrepreneurs & businesses we have spoken to in our @LordsEUCom work have been pleading for guidance, clarity & timelines for months. https://t.co/y3aedsHyu3
— Stewart Wood (@StewartWood) October 13, 2020
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.