UK exports to the EU have picked up after a record slump in January, though industry groups say the improvement does not mean Brexit-related disruption is coming to an end.

Exports totalled £11.6bn in February this year, Office of National Statistics (ONS) data published this week show. The ONS points out that marks a 47% increase from the previous month, when UK export to the bloc fell by £5.7bn – the sharpest month-on-month drop on record.

The partial rebound was driven by sales of machinery and transport equipment, chiefly cars, as well as medicinal and pharmaceutical products.

However, with the value of UK exports in February still 13% lower year-on-year, industry bodies remain cautious about the longer-term disruption to trade caused by the UK’s departure from the EU. Imports from EU member states are also down 11% compared to February 2020.

When details of January’s downturn were published by the ONS, government officials were quick to argue that a “unique combination” of factors – including new UK lockdown measures and efforts to build up inventory ahead of Brexit – had given a distorted picture of trading activity.

Now, the British Chambers of Commerce says the partial rebound “may reflect an unwinding of a number of temporary factors that weighed on the January outturn, including the running down of pre-Brexit stockpiling, rather than evidence of an underlying improvement in UK-EU trade flows”.

“Businesses continue to encounter significant disruption and difficulty with many firms reporting serious structural issues which, if not addressed, will weigh on UK economic prospects for some time to come,” says head of economics Suren Thiru.

“The UK and the EU must get back around the table to thrash out the remaining structural problems in the UK-EU trade deal and focus on long-term improvements to the flow of trade between them.”

William Bain, trade policy advisor at the British Retail Consortium (BRC) also notes the “overall reduction in trade” during the first two months of the year, taking that as an alarming sign for importers in certain sectors where border checks have not yet been fully implemented.

“The overall pattern from January-February is a worse position for fresh produce trade moving from Great Britain to the EU. That is a concern for retailers given the phasing in of GB inbound border controls in October 2021 and January 2022,” Bain tells GTR.

From October, the UK government will impose checks on agri-food being imported from the EU, and from January, a scheme allowing importers to delay declarations by up to six months will come to an end. Checks on live animals, plants and plant products will begin from March.

The warnings of longer-term disruption mark a departure from remarks made last month by cabinet minister David Frost, the UK’s former chief negotiator in Brussels, suggesting the immediate effects of Brexit were starting to “unwind”.

At the time, a cabinet office spokesperson played down suggestions the drop in trade value is indicative of the wider post-Brexit trading relationship between the two markets.

However, other industry experts remain broadly positive. Marcus Dolman, co-chair of the British Exporters Association (BExA), an industry group supporting UK firms selling to overseas markets, says “teething troubles” were to be expected in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.

“There are still obstacles to overcome to streamline trade but we are confident that these can be solved with open-minded approaches on both sides of the Channel,” he tells GTR.

BExA co-chair Geoffrey de Mowbray adds that rather than wait for government intervention, the financial sector could play an important role in keeping goods trade flowing.

“The role of trade finance and supply chain finance is essential to support exports, particularly for small and medium-size exporters Utilising the UK’s strong fintech sector is likely to be core to the solution, giving simplicity and transparency while ensuring compliance,” he tells GTR.

The value of exports to markets outside the EU hit a record high of £23.4mn in February, meanwhile, following indications that businesses were looking to diversify target markets in the wake of Brexit.