UK food and drink exports to the European Union almost halved in the first three months of the year, compared to the same period in 2020.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) figures show EU sales dropped by 47%. The trade body said the decline was largely due to changes in the UK’s trading relationships but said the pandemic was also a factor.

The government said it was “too early to draw any firm conclusions” on the long-term impact of Brexit. It also said the pandemic had depressed demand. “The most recent ONS trade statistics show that for both March and April, overall exports to the EU have exceeded the average levels across 2020,” a government spokesperson added.

Dominic Goudie, the FDF’s head of international trade, said the drop in exports his federation had recorded was a “disaster” for the industry. “It is a very clear indication of the scale of losses that UK manufacturers face in the longer-term due to new trade barriers with the EU.”

New trade barriers were not the only factor affecting cross-channel trade. The FDF said that the Covid-19 outbreak accounted for a decline of some 10-15%. Figures for the quarter were also affected by companies stockpiling ahead of the Brexit-related changes. The combination of these factors, the FDF says, led to significant falls in the value of leading exports.