Brexit: a choice between between shocking and a catastrophe

London, UK: In a matter of days the UK leaves the single market as the post-Brexit transition period ends but still there is no clarity about UK borders and a raft of other details.

Duncan Buchanan, the policy director of the Road Haulage Association, said he is expecting something “between shocking and a catastrophe”.

And the National Audit Office says that despite progress by government departments, “…it is still likely that widespread disruption will occur from 1 January 2021.”

It also specifically warns about lack of trader readiness relating to Northern Ireland where the protocol sets up different arrangements to the rest of the UK.

“This is the biggest imposition of red tape that businesses have had to deal with in 50 years,” says William Bain from the British Retail Consortium. But the real concern is that no ones appears to know what, or where, the red tape is.

Brexit is a problem entirely of the government’s making despite its best efforts to blame anyone and everyone else for any failures. Last summer, the government decided not to seek an extension to the transition period, despite widespread and well voiced fears of disruption. But in response to the devastating impact of the Covid crisis on most businesses, it chose instead to delay by six months the imposition of controls on goods entering Great Britain from the EU.

There will be checks from 1 January on controlled substances such as alcohol and tobacco, and traders deemed to be a risk will also be asked to fill in customs declarations. But the majority of checks will be delayed until 1 July, a deadline that could in theory be extended. “I think we will want to monitor it,” the chief executive of HM Revenue and Customs, Jim Harra, told MPs last week. “Hopefully we will not still be in a situation where Covid-19 is consuming as much of people’s attention.”

The government hopes the delay in imposing import controls will help limit disruption. Yet it clearly fears the worse, despite upbeat comments from ministers, with plans to divert some trade to other ports around the country, and building huge truck parks in Kent to mitigate long queues on motorways.

Yet more paperwork has been added with drivers of trucks over 7.5 tonnes now needing a Kent Access Permit before they enter the county. There are of course still the many vans crossing the Channel and it is not clear how well prepared they are for a new import-export system.

“What has been serially misunderstood by various parts of government is the scale of the complexity for people on the ground dealing with the paperwork,” says Duncan Buchanan. That could mean that instead of queues on motorways, many traders won’t be able to leave their depots. “Either they won’t be able to get vets to sign off on their meat exports, or they won’t be able to get their permit because they don’t have the right bits of paper,” says Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Storage Federation.

Shane Brennan, chief executive, Cold Storage Federation. “Instead of queues on motorways, many traders won’t be able to leave their depots. Either they won’t be able to get vets to sign off on their meat exports, or they won’t be able to get their permit because they don’t have the right bits of paper.”

“We might see a quite significant holding off of trading – people just not moving stuff in the first few weeks.” he says. The majority of trade between the EU and Great Britain is carried by EU hauliers, often paid by the kilometre who will be unwilling to lose income through delays at ports.

For the temperature-controlled logistics industry there are many unanswered questions concerning food supply: 30% of all the food consumed in the UK is imported from the EU. And the timing of Brexit could not be worse since the winter months are when the UK is most dependent on supplies from southern Europe. Problems are most likely to reveal themselves in late January when untested transport and logistics processes in Kent start to take the strain.

Northern Ireland has a unique set of problems to handle as it will be treated differently under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. “A massive amount of food for Northern Ireland comes across from GB and right now no-one – literally no-one – knows all the rules and procedures under which that trade will be conducted,” says Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation.

Northern Ireland has a unique set of problems to handle as it will be treated differently under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement

“And that makes it all but impossible to know if you can trade profitably, or even how you can trade,”

Even if there is a trade deal, which looks unlikely, and tariffs can be avoided, full checks will have to take place on goods from 1 January, and businesses say the system simply is not ready. A new customs system, which none of the traders have used before, is also being introduced for Great Britain to Northern Ireland trade, and companies still do not know what to plan for. Business in Northern Ireland is united in calling for an adjustment period – another transition in all but name – to give them more time to get ready.

Brexit, the catastrophe, seems a not unreasonable prediction.

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