Cumbrian exporters have warned of a loss of competitive advantage, extra costs and delays as firms battle to deal with the twin challenges of coronavirus and leaving the European Union.

Although Britain’s membership of the EU ended in January, the country is now in the transition period running until December 31.

Negotiations for a future trade deal with the EU are ongoing, but the deadline for extending the transition period has now passed.

This means if no trade deal is agreed by the end of the year Britain faces the prospect of tariffs on goods exported to the bloc.

Barry Leahey MBE, who is managing director of Playdale Playgrounds in Haverthwaite and chair of the Cumbria branch of the Institute of Directors, said the business world had “taken its eye off” Brexit as it dealt with the effects of coronavirus.

Playdale exports to 50 countries, with 25 per cent of its exported products going to the EU.

“For a company like Playdale to be ready for a no-deal Brexit we need to hit certain buttons after our August board meeting to ensure stock levels if we’ve got delays at ports et cetera,” he said.

“From talking to others, people have got no inclination to do that because Covid has pushed them tighter on margins and free cash.

“You need cash for a lot of this preparation.

“It all costs money and there’s not a lot of money in the system at the moment.”

He said processes at the border needed to be kept as simple as possible to avoid delays and the extra time and cost involved in training staff to prepare for new procedures.

On July 9 Barry was joined by Jayne Moorby, marketing manager for Ulverston’s Oxley Group, to give evidence online to the Parliamentary EU goods sub-committee looking into the issue.

Oxley supplies LED lighting and other components to sectors including the aerospace industry, with 45 per cent of its exports going to 20 EU countries.

Jayne told the sub-committee Oxley was also concerned about potential delays at the border and extra checks after December.

The company also wanted to keep regulatory alignment with the EU, particularly regarding aviation.

“We need to have one set of regulations to avoid duplication,” she said.

“If we were to have one separate UK set of regulations we would still need to meet EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) regulations. If we were to create a standalone UK system our concern is how long that would take.”

This could lead to delays in qualifying products for use in the EU which would put Oxley at a competitive disadvantage with countries, she said.

Oxley had been planning for Brexit for more than two years in four different areas; customs checks and delays, the impact on the workforce, customs compliance and cost and EU regulatory regimes, she said.

“We feel we are as well prepared as we can be given the level of information we’ve got at the moment,” she said.

“Everyone will be clear on the huge impact that Covid has had on the aerospace industry and small businesses. Just in business continuity measures in the past few months there has been a big impact on SMEs because there is a requirement for working safely, staff have been furloughed and there’s now, in a lot of cases, a need for looking at replanning and reshaping the business.

“In the last for months there has been very little bandwidth to give any consideration to Brexit.

“A lot of small businesses will also have had a financial impact, because everyone is putting a rein on cash and we’re low on people because we’ve had to furlough people who are shielding.

"That limits the ability to do things like strategic buying or take on additional bureaucratic burden."