The government is to apply much less rigorous EU border checks on imports than it initially had planned after the Brexit transition period finishes at the end of this year.
The UK had committed to EU goods in January.
But ministers have now abandoned plans for full checks, with sources saying a “pragmatic and flexible approach” was needed due to coronavirus.
Business welcomed the move, saying it was no time for “chaotic changes”.
Government sources told the BBC that ministers recognized the impact the virus was having on businesses, and so pragmatism and flexibility on imports made sense – “to help businesses adjust to the changes” that was now imminent.
The UK left the European Union at the end of January but is in a transition period until the end of this year, during which existing trading rules apply.
The government is expected to formally confirm soon it will not ask for an extension to the transition period – despite the coronavirus crisis.
However, there will be an about-turn, in the short term at least, on the checks carried out on imports.
In February, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said import controls were “necessary” to keep the country’s borders “safe and secure” and to collect the appropriate taxes.
Now a “temporary light-touch regime” is planned at UK ports such as Dover, regardless of whether a deal is done with the EU or not.
The proposal, first reported by applies only to rules on imports, which the UK will set. Checks on exports to the EU will be determined by Brussels.
Analysis: How the new system might work
At the end of the transition period on 31 December, the UK is free to set its own rules for trade.
The government has announced a new list of tariffs and will now unveil how companies will pay them when they import goods into the UK and what checks will be enforced at the border.
Last year the UK announced it would implement relaxed controls on imports if it left without a deal. This would have allowed importers to delay payment of the tariffs due on their goods. This limited the risk that new checks could lead to delays that would gum up the border and slow the supply of goods into the UK.
The situation is not dissimilar this time around – particularly for goods crossing the straits of Dover from Calais.
Coronavirus has hit businesses hard and limited their capacity to prepare for new checks. Relaxed controls will bring some relief as new checks could have led to delays even if the pandemic had not struck.
Moving in the other direction, it is up to the EU what checks and tariffs being exported from the UK are subject to.
The EU has a long-standing import regime and in the absence of a deal, the same default rules will apply to the UK as apply to other countries that don’t have a free trade agreement with the EU.
There is one exception to this, with no checks for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the EU.
The BBC’s political correspondent Chris Mason said government sources were insisting this wasn’t a permanent arrangement and was specifically designed to help with the adjustments businesses will soon have to make.
Business lobby group the CBI, said employers struggling with the impact of coronavirus wanted both sides to “find a route through” the process that protects jobs and living standards across Europe.
“If confirmed this would be welcomed by businesses, which simply aren’t ready for chaotic changes with our biggest trading partner at the end of the year,” said its deputy director-general, Josh Hardie.
The CBI also welcomed the news that as attempts to secure a trade deal with the EU are stepped up.
The respective negotiating teams have also agreed to “an intensified timetable” for July after the fourth round of negotiations last week failed to reach a breakthrough.
The UK has until the end of June to ask for – during which the country stays in the single market and customs union – to be extended into next year. But the prime minister has repeatedly ruled this out.
The two sides will discuss later on Friday how the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU are being implemented.
Mr. Gove will speak to European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, by videoconference, about the enforcement of the Withdrawal Agreement in areas such as citizens’ rights.