Richard North, 05/08/2020  

Nothing is final until it's final – especially with this government. But it does look as if the government is at last recognising what is about to happen to us once the transition period ends on 31 December, and is dealing with it in detail.

What this amounts to, in the first instance, is a reactivation of Operation Brock, which requires legislative amendments for enforcing traffic management plans "for outbound heavy commercial vehicles in Kent after the EU transition period". To that effect, the government has issued an open consultation.

The premise on which the consultation is based is fairly blunt. "After the EU transition period ends", the introduction tells us, "the EU will impose new controls on goods arriving from Great Britain potentially causing disruption to heavy commercial vehicles (HCV) traffic moving through the Port of Dover, Eurotunnel and the Short Straits Channel crossing".

Strictly speaking, of course, the EU will not impose "new" controls. Rather, as I pointed out, some time ago, the UK moves out of the regulatory framework (what Barnier calls the "ecosystem"), whence the controls which apply to all third countries.

One would not expect this government to understand the nuances of this position, and especially that it is largely self-imposed. But the die is cast. Operation Brock will live again.

Predictably, this has been picked up by segments of the media, although not so many. Up front is the Financial Times, which talks of trucks being stacked on the motorway in Kent if new checks cause tailbacks from 1 January.

Here, the paper rather seems to be reflecting the government's own words. It says that disruption at the cross-Channel ports at the end of the transition period "is not inevitable". Instead, it merely regards this as "a possibility for which a responsible government needs to prepare".

The Independent, however, takes a more creative view, with the headline, "Fears of dead chicks in lorries and 10 months of ports chaos detailed in new government document".

This picks up a "warning" in the consultation document that the emergency traffic measures are to last until the "end of October 2021" and then fantasises about day-old chicks dying by their thousands as "they cannot be fed in their vehicle, and delays risk dehydration and mortality".

In this, I rather feel the article authors have not read the consultation document. The whole purpose of the procedures set out in the document is to prevent vehicles even setting off for journeys to the ports unless the correct paperwork is in place, thus ensuring speedy clearance.

Specifically, in respect of the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel, the government is introducing the legislation to support the "Kent access permit" (KAP) system. This is tied into a Smart Freight (SF) Service, where HGV drivers will have to self-declare, via a web portal, if they have all the documentation they need to take goods across the "Short Straits".

Only if they are given a "green" or "amber" is a permit issued and, only with a "green" clearance can the goods be taken directly to the port without first going to an HMRC Office of Departure or a Third Party Authorised Consignor to complete customs processes.

All hauliers intending to use the ports have to use designated roads, and drivers who travel without permits, who fail to follow instructions or use non-designated roads, can be fined £300 for each offence.

For all that, we get the Independent's spectre of cute, fluffy chicks exported to the EU being left to die "unless they can be rushed through the chaos expected at UK ports next year", a prospect described as "horrifying” by Layla Moran, "a Liberal Democrat leadership candidate".

Why she should be given a cameo part in this drama isn't really (or at all) explained, but the most likely outcome is that shippers will not be allowed to move live animals or birds unless the documentation and necessary certification is already in place. These are the vehicles which will be given the "green" clearances and be able to make uninterrupted journeys to the ports.

If there are delays for these goods, it will be at the French end, where the Border Control Posts have insufficient capacity to handle the throughput. However, I suspect shippers will be testing out the system with a few trial loads before they commit themselves to a normal service.

Thus, it is the "amber" traffic which will have the delays on this side of the Channel, and there is no means of knowing the volume which may be caught. And that is the reason for Operation Brock, plus the add-ons.

Nevertheless, there also seem to be some reservations about traffic coming the other way. Operators delivering medicines after the end of the transition period are being advised by government to avoid the Channel ports "as a matter of priority", while medicine suppliers are being instructed to begin stockpiling again, by building up six weeks' worth of drugs.

These precautions are unrelated to Operation Brock as that affects outgoing traffic, and this is related to incoming goods. There is not expected to be any blockage of roads heading out of the ports, so we can only be dealing with customs clearances by the UK authorities or marketing authorisation issues.

The latter is an area of uncertainty and a number of drugs manufactured in EU Member States have as their market authorisation holders UK-registered firms. These authorisations will lapse on 31 December and, unless they have been transferred to EU domiciled entities, they can no longer be manufactured.

If this leads to a shortage of drugs in the UK (as well as elsewhere in Europe), it would not seem to be primarily be a distribution issue, so one wonders what the government isn't telling us.

It could be that the overall productivity of the transport fleet drops, that UK drivers may no longer be licensed to operate in EU Member States territories, and there may also be a shortage of ECMT (international road haulage) permits. But none of these problems, or even authorisation issues, relate specifically to the Channel ports.

Perhaps the oddest thing about all this, though, is the reaction of Chris Yarsley, policy manager at Logistics UK, formerly the Freight Transport Association. He expressed "disappointment" to see that the government "is expecting significant friction at the border with the EU", saying that the logistics industry had been given previous reassurances that friction would be minimised.

Apart from the fact that "minimised" is a rather ambiguous term that does not mean "removed" or "eliminated", there is something rather naïve about this response. I recall speaking to the FTA in the early days, and even then, they didn't seem to be of this world. Things don't seem to have improved.

Yarsley wants government's assistance "to ensure logistics vehicles can continue to move smoothly into and out of the EU". He says that "the current proposals leave too many questions unanswered and very little time available in which to identify and implement solutions to keep the country trading".

As regards logistics vehicles continuing to move "smoothly into and out of the EU", that ship has already sailed, so to speak. We kissed goodbye to that as soon as Mrs May decided we weren't going to follow down the Efta/EEA route. Border friction is going to be a fact of life, for the foreseeable future.

That said, the government is quite evidently going out of its way to ensure that congestion on the roads leading to Dover Port and Eurotunnel is managed, which is only what one would expect of it. But what happens when goods get to the other side of the Channel is, at the moment, unknown in detail. We are very soon going to find out.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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