MPs warn of possible delays that could arise at UK borders in the latter half of the year "without prompt government action to prepare for new border checks." The foreboding news arrived from the Public Accounts Committee, who have gone on record stating that this potential disruption could occur as passenger levels return to normal in the light of relaxations of restrictions linked to the pandemic.
Further strengthening the serosity of the warning is Logistics UK, who agree with the committee and have said that if nothing was done, then "traffic could grind to a halt." So far, there has been minimal disruption at the borders, according to the government, due to their wanting to ensure businesses that they receive the support required to trade with Europe.
However, Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Select Committee, said there was "much more work that the government should be doing" to ensure the border was operating effectively and to minimise the current burden on firms trading with the EU. For example, in January, new post-Brexit checks on goods contributed to tail-backs in Kent due to problems around the (then newly-introduced) paperwork required, according to Sarah Laouadi, head of European policy at the trade body. She believes there is enough time to take the action required to avoid major issues later this year, but that firms need urgent information about which ports will access which products following July 1st. From then, extra checks on agricultural and food imports from the EU will take place at ports around the UK. The Public Accounts Committee noted that some of the required infrastructure will not be completed in time, and there are also concerns about adequate levels of staffing, including vets. Their report urges the government to write to the committee within 6 months setting out the timetable for its planned programme of work on the "noteworthy ambition" in order to create the world’s most effective border in 2025.
Increased costs, delays, and paperwork are definitely making it harder for UK businesses to trade as before. Small businesses are experiencing the worst of it: John Grayson says things are already "verging on the impossible, logistically and financially" for his business, Earth Natural Foods, in London. Mary Quicke, an artisan cheesemaker based in Devon, also said she now worries that her EU customers will run out of patience and stop taking her products if these kinds of problems persist. There is a danger that businesses may not be able to continue exporting goods as easily as before, leading to decreased revenue and the danger of businesses shutting down, as the EU was a sizeable market for artisanal goods. What the confessions of small business owners show is that a 2025 deadline for the "most effective" border ambitions to be transposed into reality may come at the cost of aspiring firms.
A government spokeswoman said that "traders have adapted well to the introduction of full customs controls on January 1, with minimal disruption at the border and inbound freight flowing effectively through ports," but this can only be hoped to be the case for the months to come as well. Even so, the realism of this claim and possible wish is called into question by the delays caused by the imposition of new customs paperwork this year. From IT mishaps in January to delays caused by completing and checking the paperwork itself, the image of UK trade that is visible in reality rather than presented by government spokespeople is much grimmer. A survey of 350 UK supply chain managers who have imported or exported through the UK-EU border in January 2021 showed only 9% had not experienced delays, whilst 47% cited it taking longer for customs to work through the new paperwork as a cause of disruption. We can only assume that with the imposition of full customs controls, the situation may worsen.
Whether the ominous warning of the Public Accounts Committee will come to fruition or not, will be something that should become very visible this summer. The effects of a correct prediction would be a drastic reduction in trade for the UK, manifesting as a blow to businesses of all sizes (but small ones particularly), and a decrease in consumer choice due to smaller businesses in the EU finding it just as difficult to export their products into the country.
Much of the help that the government can provide at this point is information that can hopefully diminish the shock of new border controls that will be implemented. For now, uncertainty surrounds the topic of trade, and the full consequences of Brexit on the flow of goods between the UK and the EU have yet to be seen. We all hope that the positive outlook of the government in regards to it all is something we can count on.
Written by Nicola Craciun
Research compiled by Billy Ryan and Jonas Theaker