Imports to the UK from non-EU countries outpaced shipments from the 27 members of the EU for the first time on record during the first quarter of 2021.
This is according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which has been collecting this data since 1997. It observed that for the first quarter of 2021, trade between the UK and EU fell by £18.4 billion compared with the previous quarter.
However, it remains unclear how much of this impact was solely down to the new trading rules surrounding Brexit and how much was affected by issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic and stockpiling by importers towards the end of 2020.
"With only one quarter of data available, and the ongoing pandemic and recession, it is too early to assess the extent to which this reflects short-term trade disruption or longer-term supply chain adjustments," the ONS stated.
The new data does, however, indicate that some of the issues caused by initial Brexit teething troubles could be easing. It found that for March, exports from the UK to the EU rose by £1 billion month-on-month, while imports increased by £800 million.
Within this, the ONS highlighted a £300 million increase in imports of machinery and transport equipment to the UK, in particular cars from Germany. It attributed this to preparations for the reopening of car showrooms post-lockdown on April 12th, as well as the availability of new registration plates in March.
Overall though, imports of cars remain affected by a global shortage of semiconductor microchips, which has muted the market.
Other areas that saw upturns in activity in March included the chemicals sector, where exports increased by £500 million, including a £300 million increase in exports to non-EU countries. Retail figures also recorded a surge in demand for clothing after lockdown restrictions eased, which in turn led to greater demand for imports.