The Brexit deadline is still 14 days away but snaking queues of HGVs on the approach to British ports offers a preview of what may lie ahead in the New Year.
The government has forecast up to 7,000 lorries could be delayed on the approach to Dover in a fortnight, as new customs procedures gum up the shortest and most popular trade route to the continent.
Michael Gove said on Thursday that the 7,000 figure was “at the pessimistic end” of his expectations, but the sight of lorries stacked up on approaches to Dover and Holyhead may not provide much cause for optimism.
Logistics experts and port operators say three factors, COVID-19, Christmas demand and Brexit, have contributed to what may be the busiest ever month at some UK borders
Coronavirus has sent disruption through global supply chains from east to west in the wake of the spread.
First manufacturing was disrupted, then delivery, followed by attempts to make up supply backlogs that have not yet been cleared.
The consequence, after almost a year of disruption, is that hundreds of thousands of shipping containers are waiting to be unloaded in European and America ports, while millions more lie empty waiting to be returned to China and other Asian manufacturing hubs.
Delays are most marked at Felixstowe.
The UK’s largest container port has been congested since November, forcing importers to divert shipments to alternative docks and raising costs.
While other container ports are not as badly affected, the disruption has forced more goods onto trucks using the short straits routes across the Channel, or to Holyhead, for the island of Ireland.
The delays compound the challenge of Christmas, always the busiest time of year, with increased demand for food and gifts.
The final element is Brexit, and specifically attempts to prepare for what most traders believe will be a chaotic and dysfunctional start to the UK’s life outside the EU customs union and single market.
Thousands of retailers, manufacturers and suppliers are acting on government advice to stockpile in preparation for new border procedures that will apply, deal or no-deal.
The consequence is even more demand for imports, the bulk of which make the short hop across or beneath the Channel to Dover and Folkestone.
The huge queues to get back again are largely made up of lorries returning empty – the UK is a net importer of goods from the EU – either to return with a final load next week, or driving home for Christmas.
The majority of lorry drivers are European, many from the East.
If there is cause for optimism it is that the stockpiling now will make for a smoother transition come the New Year.
Most in the industry do not expect huge volumes of traffic to flow in the first few days, thanks to the 1 January Bank Holiday on a Friday running into a weekend.
The first real test may come on the first working Monday of the year, when lorries heading for Europe need a Kent Access Permit to enter the county en route to France, and will be making the first of around 200 million new customs declarations that will be required in the course of 2021.
The government hopes that imports to the UK may move more smoothly.
They have waived customs declarations at the border for six months, giving ports time to build the extra space they will require for processes that have not applied for 40 years.
Instead checks will take place at 10 “inland border facilities” that will double up as lorry parks for outbound vehicles that do not have the correct paperwork.
The largest, at Sevington near Ashford, is not going to be ready for the 1 January deadline after rain delayed construction.
The government insists one thing that will be ready is portable toilets for lorry drivers to use.
Currently residents at port approaches complain of filthy conditions because of a lack of facilities.
“We have spent a lot of time thinking about the toiletry provision for drivers in Kent,” an official told a House of Lords committee on Thursday.
There is a metaphor in there somewhere.
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