Commenting on the data, Head of Trade Policy at the BCC, William Bain, said:
“Significant changes in the way ONS collects data make month by month comparisons especially difficult now, but it is noteworthy that exports to the EU continued to fall in January this year.
“ONS business insights and conditions data match our own, suggesting more traders experienced difficulties with paperwork on EU exports as 2021 went on, and in the early part of 2022. This is having a major effect on trade.
“In the week that German trade figures showed exports to the UK down by a quarter over the past three years, we welcome any apparent signs that EU import flows are increasing – this important for the supply chains of many UK firms.
“But the continued weakness of UK exports to the EU shows why our five key points on improving European trade should be strongly considered by UK and EU policymakers now, so that real progress can be made.”
UK goods exports to the EU fell by £3bn (20%) in January 2022 compared with the previous month according to the ONS data. However, the ONS has changed data collection methods for both imports and exports of EU goods since 1 January so direct comparisons must be made with care.
The ONS assesses that two-thirds of the fall in goods exports was attributable to these collection method changes. This means at least £1bn (around 7%) of the fall in goods exports in January is down to wider trade flow reasons.
Exports to non-EU countries rose by £0.5bn (4.2%) over the same period, mainly through higher machinery and transport equipment exports.
On imports, the new data revealed a 24.3% higher level of EU imports to the UK – predominantly in the automotive sector. Domestic production falls have led to a surge in car imports, say the ONS. Imports from non-EU countries remained similar in January 2022 to the previous month.
Gas imports from the US surged in January owing to lower prices than European wholesale prices for gas.
Data for imports to Great Britain is now based on customs declarations, and month on month there was therefore a significant bump in imports of goods from the EU.
HMRC say this is reflective of genuine trade flows. Rises in machinery and transport equipment imports from the EU were particularly pronounced under the new data collection method.
Imports of fuels from outside the EU continued the trend of sharp rises since last autumn.
A better comparison for trade flows is to look at 2018 against 2022. Compared with January 2018, goods exports were 10.4% less in January 2022 while imports rose by 15.6%.
On the three-month averages to both dates, goods exports were down by 5.6% in the three months to January 2022 compared with the three months to January 2018 while imports rose by 10.1%.
The overall UK trade deficit rose to £21.3bn in the three months to January 2022.