Watchdog predicts ‘widespread disruption’ post Brexit

6 November 2020

Delays to implementing transit arrangements for the end of the Brexit transition period will lead to “widespread disruption” from 1 January 2021, a watchdog has warned.

The latest report on the government’s Brexit transition plans, by the National Audit Office (NAO), said disruption could be expected at borders despite progress made by the UK government to implement changes to systems, infrastructure and resources. 

The NAO warned that Covid-19 had “exacerbated delays in government’s preparations and significant risks remain”.

“Departments have made progress towards implementing the systems, infrastructure and resources required to operate the border in relation to Great Britain at ‘minimum operating capability’ by 1 January 2021 and are reasonably confident most will be ready, but timetables are tight,” the report said.

The NAO said some of the elements of transit agreements that would enable traders to move goods would be “challenging to deliver in their entirety” by 1 January. 

“If all the planned arrangements are not ready, this could have an impact on the ease with which traders can import and export goods,” it added. 

“There is little time for ports and other third parties to integrate their systems and processes with new or changed government systems, and contingency plans may need to be invoked for some elements. 

“In part as a result of the delays caused by Covid-19 there is limited time to test individual elements and resolve any emerging issues, ensure elements operate together, familiarise users with them in advance, and little or no contingency time in the event of any delays,” it said.  

The NAO added even if further progress is made, there is still likely to be significant disruption, as traders will be unprepared for new EU border controls, which will require additional administration and checks. 

It noted the government’s ‘reasonable worst-case planning assumptions’, which found up to 7,000 lorries may need to queue at the approach to the short Channel crossings.

The government is also preparing civil contingency plans to ensure continuity of the supply of critical goods and medicines, and last month it announced it had awarded contracts to provide additional freight capacity.

“However, Covid-19 is making civil contingency plans more difficult to enact, with local authorities, industry and supply chains already under additional strain,” the NAO warned. 

Elizabeth de Jong, policy director at Logistics UK, added: “Logistics UK has been working closely with government for some time to highlight the issues which could affect the smooth passage of goods through the supply chain after the end of the transition period.  

“Much has been achieved but there is still much to be done if disruption is to be avoided from 1 January 2021, with detail still required in order for logistics operators to brief and train staff, and adopt new processes for declarations, tariff calculation and payments. As always, we stand ready to provide all support necessary to make Brexit a success but need government to provide us with the information we require, in detail and at pace.”

Stefan Tärneberg, director of solution consulting at BluJay Solutions, said that rerouting via different ports could be a “saving grace” for shippers in some industries to avoid over capacity at the Channel.

However, he added: “Rerouting is not a viable solution for everyone. Fresh flowers from the Netherlands or fruit from the Mediterranean won’t survive the long journey. It also costs more in fuel miles; not ideal for those with heavy shipments. But for those determined to keep up standards, sharing containers or collaborating with suppliers on route-finding will make post-Brexit shipping far more resilient and flexible.”

Earlier this month, John Glen, CIPS economist, said the issue of queuing lorries could see customs officials  “lifting the gate” and allowing goods into the UK.

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