UK exports of goods to the European Union (EU) fell by a record margin at the start of the year as Brexit came into effect.
Exports to the EU fell by 40.7% in the first month since leaving the EU, the equivalent to a £5.6 billion loss in trade, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed in figures released on Friday.
Imports from the EU also suffered, falling 28.8%, or £6.6 billion. The losses seen in both EU exports and imports represent the greatest monthly falls seen since records began in 1997.
The slump occurred as Brexit took effect on 1 January 2021, marking the UK’s official exit from the single market and the implementation of new trading rules and customs checks. It also coincided with the UK’s third national lockdown amid accelerating COVID-19 cases, further exacerbating the trade slowdown.
Exports of food and live animals – particularly seafood and fish – were the hardest-hit by the disruption, plunging 63.6% in January. However, the sector counts for only 7% of total UK exports. Overall, global UK exports and imports fell by around a fifth at the beginning of the year.
Although the fall in exports was historic, the decline did not reach the 68% plunge that road hauliers had expected to face. January’s GDP figure also represented the UK’s largest economic contraction since the beginning of the pandemic, but did not fall as much as the 4.9% anticipated by analysts.
The lack of a greater decline in GDP is believed by some analysts to suggest that businesses and households have adapted better to lockdown restrictions than they had prior to April 2020, when GDP fell by more than 20% as the first lockdown measures were imposed.