Exports of UK goods to the European Union dropped by more than two-fifths in January as the Brexit transition period came to an end.
New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that overall exports from the UK fell by £5.6 billion – 19.3%.
It was driven by a £5.6 billion, or 40.7%, plunge in exports of goods to the EU, the ONS said.
Imports also fell, by £8.9 billion overall (21.6%), while imports from the EU dropped £6.6 billion (28%), the figures show.
The falls in imports and exports are the largest since records began in 1997, the ONS said, as a £200 million – 1.7% – increase in non-EU exports failed to make up for the decline within the bloc.
British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) head of economics Suren Thiru said: “While changes in data collection limit historic comparisons, the significant slump in UK exports of goods to the EU, particularly compared to non-EU trade, provides an ominous indication of the damage being done to post-Brexit trade with the EU by the current border disruption.
“The practical difficulties faced by businesses on the ground go well beyond just teething problems and, with disruption to UK-EU trade flows persisting, trade is likely to be a drag on UK economic growth in the first quarter of 2021.”
The end of the transition period coincided with the spread of a new strain of Covid-19 in the UK, causing lorry drivers to need tests to cross the border at the English Channel.
On Thursday, the government again delayed its plans to introduce full border checks with the EU until early next year, after they were originally planned for July.
Former Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato commented: “I am horrified by clear evidence that Johnson’s determination to ‘f**k business’ has succeeded so dramatically. The decision to put up new trade barriers with our largest trading partner has had the inevitable consequences that we warned about with trade falling off a cliff”.
She continued: “As an MEP I took the government to court to release the studies of the impact of Brexit on our economy. Now I understand why they fought so hard to keep them secret.
“Commentators are trying to lessen the blow by suggesting that these figures may be impacted by stockpiling and teething problems but this is entirely to miss to the point.
“The decision to leave the European Union was an act of wanton destruction driven by a tiny elite for their own self-serving reasons. The devastating consequences for the rest of us are only now beginning to play out.”
The government has denied the figures reflected the overall trading relationship with the EU since Brexit.
A spokesman said: “A unique combination of factors, including stockpiling last year, Covid lockdowns across Europe, and businesses adjusting to our new trading relationship, made it inevitable that exports to the EU would be lower this January than last.
“This data does not reflect the overall EU-UK trading relationship post-Brexit and, thanks to the hard work of hauliers and traders, overall freight volumes between the UK and the EU have been back to their normal levels since the start of February.”