The European Union would be prepared to look at a bilateral veterinary agreement with the UK as a way around many of the food safety and animal health trade barriers associated with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The suggestion was made by the European Commission vice president Maros Šefčovič in an interview with RTÉ News.

"We would be ready to discuss [the issue] with our UK partners. What are their ideas and what can we do to find a solution?" he said.

Mr Šefčovič said he raised the issue with his UK counterpart Michael Gove yesterday evening during a meeting of the EU/UK Joint Committee, which is tasked with implementing the protocol.

He told RTÉ News: "We should get our experts together and check what we can do, to find the ways towards [sanitary and] phytosanitary cooperation, and to see if we can find a solution."

Mr Šefčovič would not rule out the prospect of extensions to two grace periods which provide derogations to a number of EU food safety requirements, but he said the UK would first have to implement the flexibilities that both sides had agreed during negotiations, which concluded in December.

RTÉ News understands the UK is pressing for the EU to agree to allow British supermarkets with outlets in Northern Ireland to provide monitoring and traceability of foodstuffs to EU standards themselves, if their IT surveillance systems were upgraded thanks to UK financial support.

Sources have said this could ultimately obviate the need for expensive and cumbersome documentation which will have to accompany consignments of products of animal origin from 1 April.

It is understood that London has suggested that any extensions to the two grace periods would provide the time necessary to upgrade those systems.

However, Mr Šefčovič was cautious about an automatic agreement to extend the grace periods.

"We hear that there is a need for more time to actually accomplish this task [of upgrading supermarket surveillance systems]," Mr Šefčovič told RTÉ News.

"We need a very clear timetable. What are the concrete steps? What are the milestones?" 

It is understood London and Brussels have tentatively discussed a bilateral veterinary agreement.

However, there appears to be a significant gap between the models that each side favours.

It is understood the European Commission would prefer a Swiss-style agreement, through which the UK would agree to largely align itself to the EU's food and plant safety and animal health rules, as Switzerland does.

This is thought to be a non-starter for the UK. It is understood London would prefer a New Zealand style agreement, whereby both sides would regard each other's food safety regime as "equivalent".

However, the EU is wary of such an arrangement due to the significantly different profile of GB food movements to Northern Ireland, compared to the consignments New Zealand sends to the European Union.